Never mind the hard Brexiteers – what if the EU prefers a no-deal outcome?

“Taking back control” is a fantasy, and Brussels could decide to make an example of us.

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Brexit throws up new dramas by the day. But I stick with my prediction of how it will end: after many late-night sessions in Brussels, walk-outs and yet more resignations, Theresa May will agree a deal that nobody can understand but will entail Britain, in effect, staying in both the single market and the customs union. Some Brexiteers may vote against it but the majority of MPs won’t because none will dare take responsibility for the economic risks of a no-deal outcome.

There’s just one doubt in my mind. Could EU leaders themselves decide that they prefer no-deal? Eurosceptics are not just a British problem: across the continent, most obviously in Italy, their stock is rising. True, their motives differ – some merely want to ditch the euro – but, like our own Eurosceptics, they all want to cherry-pick the parts of the EU project that suit them.

Brussels could decide to make an example of the British pour encourager les autres. It’s a cold, hard world out there. “Taking back control” is a fantasy: the sheer size of the EU forces countries outside it such as Norway and Switzerland to adopt its rules whether they like them or not. Countries that refuse to become what Boris Johnson calls EU “colonies” will find themselves becoming colonies of the US or even China. What better way to demonstrate that than to refuse the British a deal, wave them goodbye and let the world see what happens?

Resigned to fate

The conventional Westminster wisdom is that Boris Johnson is a fool: it’s always a mistake for ambitious politicians to resign. That’s not wholly true, however. Harold Wilson’s resignation from the Labour cabinet in 1951 over NHS prescription charges – alongside Aneurin Bevan and John Freeman (later an NS editor) – established his credentials with the Labour left and helped propel him to the leadership in 1963.

Robert Cecil resigned from a Tory cabinet in 1867 in protest against extending the franchise to working-class men before, as Marquess of Salisbury, he became Tory prime minister in 1895. Yet Johnson’s role model Winston Churchill, though he twice switched parties, resigned from HH Asquith’s wartime government in 1915 only after he was demoted to a sinecure following the disastrous Dardanelles campaign for which he, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was held responsible.

Johnson should recall that the only 20th-century Tory to become prime minister after resigning from a cabinet – over appeasement in 1938 – was Anthony Eden. Eden, responsible for the 1956 Suez fiasco, lasted just 21 months. It is hardly an encouraging precedent.

Faking it for Trump

British ministers and White House aides reportedly fear that, although Donald Trump’s schedule is designed to prevent him catching sight of protests during his visit to Britain, the thin-skinned US president will see himself being mocked on the TV news programmes that he watches obsessively.

The answer is surely to doctor his TV reception. How? Blacking out news items about his visit wouldn’t work: for Trump, being ignored is worse than being denigrated.

The comic film Good Bye, Lenin! offers a better idea. It concerns a lifelong East German supporter of communism who lapses into a coma. She revives as the Berlin Wall falls and doctors warn that any shock will cause a fatal heart attack. Her son, who works in cable TV, creates fake news programmes to convince her that the communists are still in power and any scenes of rejoicing are over the fall of the West German regime.

Government information services should make news bulletins that convince our guest (who, let’s face it, isn’t all that bright) that the thousands marching in the streets are chanting pro-Trump slogans.

Publish and be saved

Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has long insisted that it is a technology firm providing a neutral platform for news and opinion, not a publisher. It cannot therefore be held legally responsible for content.

But now, defending a complex case in a California court about its collection of data, including text messages and photos, Facebook’s lawyers claim it is a publisher making “editorial decisions”. It is therefore entitled to the free press and free speech protections of the first amendment to the US constitution.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Darroch, chief executive of Sky, a company largely owned (and soon, most probably, wholly owned) by Rupert Murdoch, calls on ministers to create a regulator “with sharp teeth” to stop the “flow of hate, abuse and offensive, illegitimate and even dangerous content” accessible through Facebook and Google. Yet Murdoch, owner of the Times, Sunday Times and Sun, has long campaigned against regulation, particularly of press content.

I understand little of the digital world but I can tell when people are trying to have their cake and eat it. Perhaps that is just an analogue perspective.

Bourgeois blues

In Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, a pawnbroker’s shop has appeared. A discreet one, mind you, with an understated black front. Called Prestige Pawnbrokers, it has branches in leafy Richmond, south-west London, and wealthy Weybridge, Surrey, as well as central Manchester and central London. It particularly welcomes those who wish to pawn helicopters, Lamborghinis, and vintage bottles of Lafite Rothschild.

Other recent arrivals include an organic food shop, an upmarket butchers (with prices that make you wonder if it might be cheaper to buy livestock and graze them in nearby Epping Forest) and a restaurant with a charcoal oven and “an unparalleled selection of Provence rosé wines in laid-back surroundings featuring up-cycled furniture and cool collectables”.

Our new pawnbroker seems to confirm that Loughton has become an acceptably chic destination for the fashion-conscious, if financially over-extended, middle classes. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce