Brexit: Make way for the Metaphor

On November 3rd 1857 thousands gathered to watch the launch of Brunel’s SS Great Eastern, the largest steamship ever built.

But it got stuck, and it took three more goes and three months to get her afloat. Then on her maiden voyage an explosion killed five stokers, wrecked the forward deck and sent a funnel flying.

On June 23rd 2016 Britain voted to leave the European Union. Twenty-four months later ministers still aren’t ready to launch the Good Ship Brexit. And next month a series of parliamentary explosions will set feathers flying.

Careers could be wrecked. There may well be fatalities, in the political sense.

The reason is simple. On the referendum ballot paper was a binary choice. Yes or no. Since then the Tories have split off into ferociously feuding factions, all claiming ownership of the result in the minutest detail.

In the deep blue to indigo corner is Jacob Rees Mogg and the European Reform Group, whose objective looks like giving Brussels the same V-sign as English archers are said to have given the French after the Battle of Agincourt.

And in the pastel blue to pink corner is Ken Clarke and the unreconstructed remainers, who wish there’d never been a referendum, and only pay lip service to the leavers’ wafer-thin majority because polls haven’t shifted much since.

Given Theresa May’s own tenuous grip on power since her ill-fated general election a year ago she’s been kicking the can, in her elegantly kitten-heeled way, down the road all this time.

But looming on the immediate horizon is the flat-earthers’ vision of where the planet ends and boats fall off the edge. Thanks to the House of Lords.

They’ve holed the government’s flagship EU Withdrawal Bill in no fewer than fifteen places, all below the Plimsoll line. And in the coming weeks the Commons will be voting on what changes to accept and what to send back.

Effectively they’ll be choosing between the soft landing, where trade arrangements with the European Union are left relatively unmolested, and the hard option, which would sweep them aside along with political alignment.

Yes, the dilemma really is that stark.

Far less clear-cut, however, is the parliamentary arithmetic which will decide outcomes. It’s not just a question of who wants what, but who has the cojones to defy their party leadership. Both on the Tory and the Labour side.

Equally uncertain is the extent to which the Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn will stick to their guns. That’s if they can even make up their minds which way to point them.

This is not a rant, but a reality check. The surreal undertones permeating parliament just now make twelve-dimensional chess look like child’s play.

And it’s hardly surprising that European leaders, gearing up for a crunch summit at the end of June, are getting exasperated. They really would like to know what UK fancies for an endgame, but as of now haven’t the foggiest. Any more than we do.

All the while business leaders are chomping at the bit, as strategic financial decisions are impossible if they can’t see beyond the end of their noses. And they suspect that that part of the anatomy of all too many ministers is constantly growing, which doesn’t help.

Then there’s Ireland and the tortured issue of the North/South border. It’s mile upon mile of zigzags, more like the trenches in World War One than the neat junction between Whitehall and Parliament Square.

There’s getting on for three hundred crossing points, bit of a problem if each side has different customs arrangements. And likely a running sore on the barely healed wounds inflicted by The Troubles.

Little wonder the Irish Prime Minister is more than exasperated. It’d need the luck of the Irish with knobs on to police that little lot without getting grief along the way.

And a final thought about the SS Great Eastern. It never really made any money and got scrapped thirty years down the line.

Of course Brexiteers will poo-poo any such craven analogy. But the Bank of England governor is already making plans for stepping in to prevent a slump, in the event of what he terms a ‘disorderly’ Brexit.

Which suggests he would stroke his chin and nod grimly.

Peter Spencer

The decidedly dapper Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, with London Broadcasting and Sky News. He’s interviewed every Prime Minister from Harold Wilson to Theresa May. Aside from his reporting duties he’s also a talented author. Follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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