4th December 2017 The MALESTROM

Brexit tittle tattle

With a make-or-break summit set for next week to determine the outcome of a UK EU Brexit deal, The MALESTROM’s Chief Political Correspondent Peter Spencer retreads the path of the long and rather shambolic road we’ve travelled on to get here.

The moment of truth is bad news for bulls. Which is why Theresa May has swerved it.

Smart choice? The untold Brexit secret has been that plucky little Britain never did stand a chance against the EU 27.

In Florence this September the Prime Minister admitted the penny had dropped. Hence the billions that followed.

With the luxury of hindsight the course of events seems never to have been in doubt.

But what beggars belief or even understanding is how she managed to take that cauldron of hatreds, aka the cabinet, with her.

Arguably it’s of a piece with how she got to be PM in the first place. Waiting for rivals to kill one another then just stepping over the bodies.

That was the easy bit. Since then she’s made Odysseus’ task of shimmying between a man-eating monster and a ship-sinking whirlpool seem plain sailing, pardon the language.

But now Britain’s finally made it to the negotiating starting line, eight months late, it’s worth asking how we got here, and where we could be headed.

First, the referendum itself. An electorate not particularly fussed about Europe was asked if it was happy with the nation’s geopolitical arrangements of the last half-century. Or whether if fancied giving something else a go.

A majority slim enough to fall within the bounds of statistical error opted for the biggest upheaval in post-war Britain. And under the banner of taking back control it left the choice of where that’ll lead to the Prime Minister and her cabinet. Just twenty-two people.

This is not to say those voters were wrong. Only a reminder that the referendum question was binary.

To some, no doubt, it was just an invitation to blow a raspberry at the world then carry on as normal.

To others it promised escape from the shackles of Brussels bureaucracy. One leap and, hey presto, freedom!

But nowhere on the ballot paper was there mention of the single market, the customs union, the world trade organization or the taste of chlorinated chicken.

Easing back from the EU’s political project but remaining part of its trading arrangements counts as Brexit. So does telling our former partners to go whistle, to borrow the phrase.

The gap between those positions, and their differing implications for the British economy, is enormous.

Brexit does not mean Brexit then, as Theresa May has always known.

Understandably, the nation’s business community is desperate to know what it does mean. Unfortunately, working that out is not within Britain’s gift.

We can demand, cajole, whine, stamp our little feet, do what we like. Ultimately the EU has the cards, Britain has the begging bowl. A brutal truth, which even the Tory party’s most jihadist Brexiteers have to acknowledge.

But there is an alternative, their argument goes. Who came to the rescue in the two world wars? Who are our real friends? Who speaks our language, for god’s sake?

That strain of thinking was General De Gaulle’s reason for saying non to Britain in the first place. Seems he had a point after all.

In normal times the transatlantic special relationship could have been our trump card. But it’s currently trumped by The Donald.

Barack Obama warned we couldn’t expect special trading favours from the USA, and he was the voice of reason.

His successor endorses British Neo-Nazi thinking and won’t be told there’s anything wrong with that.

There’s open discussion in Washington about whether he’s just bad or mad as well.

There’s a widespread perception this side of the pond that he’s a cult. Spelt with an N.

And few would maintain his, ahem, volatility makes for stable relations. Commercial or otherwise.

That said, the newly opened possibility of a half-decent deal with the European Union is more than a stroke of luck, it’s the kiss of life.

Not everyone would agree. But there are always diehards.

It’s said when the Light Brigade began its suicidal charge at the Battle of Balaclava the Russian commanders decided the Brits must be drunk.

“Their’s not to reason why, their’s but to do and die” – so Tennyson’s poem tells us.

Possibly also a clue how he might counter the claim that no deal’s better than a bad deal: “Tell that to the six hundred …”

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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