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28 October 2019

I forgot an entire Brexit extension. What other political news have we just lost this year?

We’ve forgotten more news in 2019 than we remember of entire previous decades.

By Jonn Elledge

Pop quiz, hot shot: how many times has the EU now agreed to give Britain an extension on its Brexit negotiations?

If you said two then, well, you’re wrong – but you’re wrong in the same way that I was until a couple of hours ago, because I could have sworn today’s was the second extension and it isn’t. The long extension to this week, which European Council President Donald Tusk famously and pointlessly exhorted the British government not to waste, was actually not granted until mid-April, nearly two weeks after the UK was originally meant to have left the EU.

That means that 31 January 2020 is actually the fourth proposed deadline for Brexit. It follows in the footsteps of previous successful Brexit days such as 31 March, 12 April and 31 October. Fourth time’s the charm.

I take some comfort in the fact that I totally forgot about this from the way that, if my Twitter mentions are anything to go by, every other bugger seems to have done the exact same thing. The fact Theresa May was forced to ask for a delay to Brexit because she couldn’t get her deal through parliament felt like a massive humiliation at the time. (At least, I’m assuming it did; who even remembers?) But six months on, it’s entirely possible to have completely forgotten about it.

Because it didn’t matter, really, did it? Within a couple of weeks it had been superseded by another, much longer delay, and we’d all moved onto something else.

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So, like Carrie Bradshaw pondering the mysteries of multiple orgasms, I got to thinking: what else has happened in politics this year? What other news stories were there that felt briefly all-consuming to those of us who drink in this stuff like water, yet seem almost entirely irrelevant now?

Here, courtesy of the depths of my subconscious and the New Statesman’s traffic figures, is a brief and inevitably incomplete list:

1. On 18 February, six Labour MPs left the party to form a new party. Three days later they were joined by a trio of liberal Tories.

This breakaway group had been rumoured for many, many months, and, in any other year, the creation of a spiritual heir to the Social Democratic Party, attracting defectors from both major parties, would have felt like The Big Political News Story. In 2019, however, after the fledgling party crashed and burned having cycled through more names than it received actual votes, it’s entirely possible to forget it ever existed at all. Even though it still, technically, has five MPs. 

2. In May’s European elections – which, you’ll recall, we were never meant to take part in because we were supposed to have left the European Union, but we are where we are – the Conservatives managed a quite stunning achievement for a governing party and came fifth.

The silver medal went to the Lib Dems, on nearly 20 per cent of the vote, while the winner was, at least on a technicality, a new party: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, just four months old, on 30.5 per cent.

In any other year, a new party topping a national poll would feel like a quite a big deal. This year? Meh.

3. On 24 July, Philip Hammond was chancellor of the exchequer. On 4 September, a mere six weeks later, he was kicked out of the Conservative Party along with 20 of his peers, including another former chancellor and the Father of the House, three former leadership candidates, a gaggle of former ministers and the grandson of Winston Churchill.

It’s not that we’ve forgotten this, exactly. But it does feel as if we’ve all metabolised it so fast we’ve stopped noticing that it’s shocking.

4. Last month, Boris Johnson said he would rather “be dead in a ditch” than ask the EU for another extension to the Brexit negotiations. This month Boris Johnson has asked for and received another extension to the Brexit negotiations, but is so far neither dead nor ditch adjacent.

We have not forgotten about this yet, admittedly, but he’s clearly working on the assumption that we’re going to – and what’s worse, I bet he’s right.

5. Last one: there was a period in July where the polls appeared a four-way tie between the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems and Brexit Party. That’s receded now, as the Tories have pulled ahead again. But nonetheless, the fact this happened at all was completely and utterly insane.

Yet we’ve all just moved past it. Because, even if we restrict ourselves to those concerned with polling, there have been about 300 new stories to think about since.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? This year has brought an avalanche of political news stories, every one of which felt massive at the time and would have dominated the news agenda in many other years. (Honestly, the media quite genuinely spent months, literally months, of the year 2000 discussing the political implications of one girl’s UCAS form.) In 2019, though, these stories will be lucky to get more than a, “Oooh, I’d forgotten about that!” when Jimmy Carr brings them up on the Big Fat Quiz of the Year.

British politics this year has taken on the same sort of plot logic as a soap opera. In one sense, if you miss a couple of episodes, it feels like you’ve missed something: you can’t follow any of the plotlines and don’t have the faintest idea who anyone is (“Who’s the bloke who looks like Penfold? How did he become important?”).

In another, though, it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because there’s a broader, macro sense in which nothing ever changes at all. The cast may alter but events have no consequences, and if you try to follow every detail, well, it’s only your time you’re wasting. We’re still in chaos. The government still can’t govern. Britain is still, at time of writing, a member of the EU.

All of which is a long way of saying that I kind of regret the evening I spent last March watching the results of “meaningful vote two” from a hotel restaurant when I was meant to be enjoying my holiday. Honestly, I should have gone out and played mini golf.

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