Fintan O’Toole: Boris Johnson has joined the undead
Brexit will never be laid to rest. It may even be destined to meander on forever
Back to the future; forward to the past – Brexit has a way of defying linear time. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
There are some fine and historic ditches in and around these islands: Offa’s Dyke that marks the old boundaries of England and Wales, the Black Pig’s Dyke that did a similar service for northern and southern Ireland, Grim’s Ditch that runs through several southern English counties. But surely none will have so storied a place in history as The Ditch That Boris Johnson Didn’t Die In.
The British prime minister promised in early September that he would be “dead in a ditch” before he would agree to extend his country’s membership of the European Union beyond October 31st. That means, surely, that as of 11pm Brussels time on Thursday, Johnson is the first self-acknowledged member of the undead to occupy 10 Downing Street.
This was not, admittedly, Johnson’s first encounter with mortality in a roadside trench. In his 2002 book, Friends, Voters, Countrymen: Jottings on the Stump, he boasted of his great journalistic campaign to save Britain’s “heritage” of exotic-flavoured crisps from interfering food Nazis in Brussels.
Imagining a British crisp company executive, he wrote that such a man knows of the Tories “that we are a capitalist party that will help him sell as much deep-fried potato as he likes… we will die in the last ditch to preserve the prawn cocktail flavour crisp”. In Johnson’s world, leaving the EU and preserving the prawn cocktail flavour crisp are matters of equal gravity, equally worthy of the blood of martyrs.
There is, nonetheless, something apt about Johnson’s joining of the undead, for the project he, more than anyone else, embodies has a strange kind of zombie or vampire existence, forever killing itself off only to return again to stalk the earth. Brexit posits an Independence Day, a great moment of national rebirth. That’s standard practice for revolutions. But consider how many dates have been officially inscribed as British independence days by London or Brussels or both.
The first was March 29th, 2019. It could not be met. The UK and the EU then agreed to extend article 50 – the legal mechanism for exiting the EU – until May 22nd, subject to MPs approving the withdrawal agreement, or failing that, until April 12th. After MPs rejected the deal for the third time, Theresa May wrote to Donald Tusk requesting an extension until June 30th, 2019. The EU then agreed two options – an extension until June 1st if the UK didn’t hold elections for the European Parliament – or an extension to October 31st if it did. And now we have three more possible dates for Brexit agreed by Johnson and the EU: November 30th or December 31st, 2019, or January 31st, 2020.
Queen Elizabeth only has two birthdays; post-Brexit Britain has nine – so far. The date with destiny has turned out to be a whole box of dates. With Brexit, a deadline is a line that is drawn forever and then dies away.
This was also the biggest constitutional change in the nature of the UK since Irish independence in 1922
What we glimpse in these moments is that, with the Brexit referendum, time went out of joint. Britain began simultaneously to occupy two completely different temporal worlds. In one, Brexit was hurtling ever faster forward, towards a known and supposedly unbreakable appointment with fate. Not just known but chosen. It was entirely a matter for the British to start the timer, to say to their imagined destiny, as in an old-fashioned romantic movie: let’s make a date to meet under the clock at 11pm on March 29th, 2019. The very hour was specified in law. And it was supposed to be irrevocable. When Theresa May triggered article 50, she told parliament that “there can be no turning back”.
And yet, there has been nothing but turning back. In any rational process, the two years allowed by the Lisbon Treaty for Britain to negotiate a withdrawal agreement with Brussels would have been a time of urgency and immediacy. The country had 24 months in which to undo nearly half a century of profound legal, economic and political entanglement with the EU. This was also the biggest constitutional change in the nature of the UK since Irish independence in 1922. Even if Brexit were a good idea, it was obviously an immense task. Each of the 730 available days mattered, and one might have expected British hearts to beat faster as each one of them was marked off on the calendar.
But there was instead a strange meandering, every movement towards a feasible agreement followed by a looping back into previously discarded impossibilities. Take the most notorious example, the “backstop” agreement to ensure that whatever final trading arrangements might be agreed between the UK and the EU, the Irish Border would remain open and invisible. It was agreed formally by Theresa May in December 2017, contradicted by some of her ministers in the following weeks, agreed again by May in March 2018 in a draft withdrawal agreement, included in the final withdrawal agreement in November 2018, and effectively repudiated by May in January 2019. And then, eventually, the whole thing looped all the way back to December 2017 and the original version of the backstop that May (under pressure from Arlene Foster) had rejected.
All of this gave Johnson’s “do or die” rhetoric about leaving the EU on October 31st a certain potency. In his shameless way, he has exploited public exasperation at the very mess he did so much to make. Having created the monster, he could pose as the Van Helsing of Brexit, the one man who could track it down to its lair and put a stake through its heart so it could never again suck the lifeblood out of British politics and society.
Even if the withdrawal agreement is passed, the much more complicated trade negotiations begin
It is striking that the appeal of the whole project has ceased to lie in the wondrous future it once promised. It is now just what the torturer says to his victim: I can make it stop. “Get Brexit Done”, the slogan endlessly repeated by Johnson (presumably it tested well in the focus groups), pretty much boils down to: let’s get this horrible thing over with. It is a long way from the sunny uplands.
But of course it won’t be done. Even if the withdrawal agreement is passed, the much more complicated trade negotiations begin. More profoundly, all the reasons why Britain joined the EU in the first place (the reality that it is profoundly affected by what happens in continental Europe and thus needs to have a say in shaping what happens there) will simply return. The brave new world will look very like the old world of 1972. Back to the future; forward to the past – Brexit has a way of defying linear time. There is no last ditch, just an endless series of looping paths that will meander across the landscape unless and until the whole thing is ditched.