The British government’s handling of Brexit is like a comic opera but without the cheerful denouement
There are moments when the British government’s handling of its Brexit misadventure seems to come straight out of the libretto of a Victorian comic operetta.
Less than a week after sending her Article 50 letter, one of Theresa May’s many predecessors as Tory leader was telling national TV he thought the British Prime Minister would be prepared to go to war to protect Gibraltar as Margaret Thatcher once did for the Falklands.
This was just the spurious inducement the over- excitable pro-Brexit press needed. Within days they were running inflammatory front pages calling for the sending of armadas and flotillas, not to mention the obligatory “Up Yours” gesture to Madrid.
Rather than talking down the rhetoric, members of Mrs May’s party seemed hell-bent to stoke it up even further. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson took to Twitter to pledge “rocklike” support for Gibraltar, while Andrew Rosindell MP suggested that Spain back down on Gibraltar because “we send them huge numbers of pensioners”, though not before he accused the Spanish government of “…behaving like we’re still in colonial times”.
Talk about projection. It seemed last week as if there was not anyone associated with the British government who didn’t think it was the colonial days as they sent ministers out across the globe scouting for potential trade deals in – yes, you guessed it – former British colonies.
But, as in most comic operas, bravado means bluster. The more the hero claims to be a great military man, the more likely it is that he is just a man of straw.
While the tabloids indulged themselves in the worst forms of jingoistic drivel, the first faint suggestions were emerging from the UK government that its “hard Brexit” strategy may not fly and that the whole process will take a lot longer than two years.
Prime Minister May herself seemed to accept that the free movement of EU citizens to the UK could continue long after Brexit, during what she calls an “implementation phase”. This would be the period after any 2019 UK/EU agreement during which new border controls and a trade deal are put in place, a lengthy and complex process.
There were other signals too that the expectations raised by the Leave campaign last year, may not come to pass. During a visit by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer to India there were strong hints from the Indian side that any possible UK/India trade deal would have to include some form of free movement clause for Indian citizens wishing to study and work in Britain.
But isn’t this precisely the reason why the UK is getting out of the EU? Doesn’t the UK want to have sole control of immigration, rather than have it partly determined by those with whom you have trade deals? Isn’t that why the UK not only wants out of the EU, but also out of the single market and the customs union?
Had no one told Johnson, Davis and Fox that trading partners, particularly partners who see that the other side is more pressed to secure the deal, like to include other measures, such as the free movement of people and services, in any deals they make?
So, in the space of just one week when the bulk of the British media was fixated by the plastic sabre rattling of the Tory old guard, senior members of the government were hinting that Brexit may not be as smooth, speedy or effective as they once asserted.
This is not just dishonest and confusing, it is also a recipe for political disaster.
While it may appear on the surface that having Jeremy Corbyn as the alternative puts Theresa May in a politically comfortable position, the reality is that her own party is now so poisonously anti-European that she may struggle to secure a parliamentary majority for anything less than a strident and damaging hard Brexit.
But that is not the deal she will be able to deliver. So, unlike the comic operettas of the past, there will be no cheerful Act III finale where all problems are resolved and the characters sing a rousing chorus of Rule Britannia. The final notes in this Brexit tragi-comedy are going to be decidedly discordant.