Monday 16 September 2019

John Downing: 'From slouching Jacob to 'chicken' Corbyn - a week stranger than anything in fiction'

Lying down on the job: Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees Mogg was seen lounging across the benches in Parliament during a key Brexit debate on Tuesday
Lying down on the job: Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees Mogg was seen lounging across the benches in Parliament during a key Brexit debate on Tuesday
John Downing

John Downing

Any writer proposing an account of the past Brexit political week as a film or novel would be accused of deviating into the surreal and unbelievable. But the following 10 vignettes from a week where politics veered from the bizarre to the absurd tell us the truth is far stranger than any fictional evocation.

1. Slouch goes viral

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the MP for the 19th century and most foppish of the ageing Tory Young Fogies, spread himself across three parliament seats during Tuesday's debate.

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The slouch came after a derogatory reference to Charles Stewart Parnell, once the uncrowned King of Ireland, comparing the opposition's seizing control of the agenda with the obstructionism of the Irish Party in the 1870s and 1880s. Slumped Rees-Mogg images went viral.

2. Establishment rebels

The most unlikely rebels were quickly evicted from the Conservative Party in its biggest ever purge. Those gonged included seven former ministers, former finance minister Ken Clarke, and Winston Churchill's grandson, the avuncular Nicholas Soames.

Clarke mused that nobody could predict the next bizarre twist from hour to hour. On the other side Michael Gove, the no-deal Brexit minister, said only the Lord knew the future.

3. Boris is snookered

Boris Johnson was rattled by four consecutive defeats. Unable to comply with a law obliging him to do a complete about-turn and seek a Brexit EU extension, he also failed to get the necessary two-thirds backing for a snap election on October 15. He petulantly said his negotiators were "making progress" in EU negotiations. The EU strongly signalled no such thing was happening.

4. Chicken Corbyn

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spent two years urging a general election. Now he wanted a delay until a no-deal Brexit was walled off. Boris Johnson called Corbyn a "chlorinated chicken" and could be seen mouthing in parliament that he was "a big girl's blouse". The infantile name-calling continued from the Brexiteer Tories. By yesterday they were posting ads depicting the Labour leader as a chicken with the headline 'JFC'.

5. Brexit cupboard love

No-deal Brexit threats hit cupboard love too. When the authorities urge people not to stockpile food and medicine, that is the very thing many people do. One pro-Remain stockpile group stopped posting its doings on social media.

But media reports showed that Brexiteers were also stockpiling - some were gutted a no-deal crash-out did not happen last spring when their cupboards were full.

6. Enter VP Pence

But Ireland got its own share of stranger than true thanks to a visit by US vice-president Mike Pence. He lavished the purple prose about being "deeply humbled" and "honoured" to be visiting Doonbeg, the home of his mother's grandmother.

But in Dublin he told Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Ireland and the EU must "negotiate in good faith" with Boris Johnson and respect UK sovereignty.

7. Even his own brother

Boris Johnson's own brother, Jo, announced he was quitting as a junior minister and MP. He favours Remain while his brother wants Brexit - and the tension had become too much.

Their sister, Rachel, also a Remainer, said they avoid the topic when gathered for family meals.

8. Call the police

One young police recruit slumped into her seat in an apparent faint in another bizarre political image in an extraordinary week.

Johnson had new police recruits massed behind him as he spoke in the Yorkshire town of Wakefield on Thursday. The area is both Labour and Brexit supporting. The local police chief issued an extraordinary statement condemning the use of police for a political speech covering other topics.

9. Sanity and heroism

Yet there were moments of sanity - and even heroism. Conservative MP for Bedfordshire, Alistair Burt, championed the case of Ireland amid all the mayhem. "They became our best friends in the EU.... now the UK has put Ireland in the most catastrophic situation," Mr Burt told parliament.

Ken Clarke raised the plight of Northern Ireland with parliaments to be shut down in Belfast and London.

10. And more next week...

The bathos and drama could be engaging and diverting, especially for those of us compelled by politics. But its consequences are potentially catastrophic for all the people of these islands and across the EU.

It is set to continue next Monday after a flying visit to Dublin by Mr Johnson. There is even the surreal prospect of Mr Johnson trying to bring down his own government to force an early election.

That would bring UK politics tragically even deeper into the realms of surreal fiction.

The saddest part is the risk to all our livelihoods.

Irish Independent

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