Monday 16 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Eh, just one more thing, Your Majesty'

Politics once claimed the best and brightest. Today, as the Brexit mess shows, it's the worst and dimmest, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

In the dangerous days of the Cold War, UK civil servants created detailed plans for the quickest way to get Queen Elizabeth out of London, should it look like the capital was in imminent danger from Russian nukes.

Last week, they dusted off and "repurposed" those plans. Fears of civic disorder and possible riot, as a consequence of Brexit, have made the British establishment fearful of their own citizens.

The other side of the coin is the fear of the revenge the Brexit camp will seek if leaving the EU is delayed indefinitely.

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How bad would a no-deal exit be? Terrible, says one side. No problem, says the other.

The truth is neither side knows. They won't know until and unless it happens.

People are taking to the streets to protest the latest jolly japes from Boris Johnson - limiting the ability of parliament to discuss the Brexit crisis.

There's video of Johnson rejecting the possibility of suspending parliament. He has now imposed it.

There are similar videos of Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd, Michael Gove and Matt Hancock - all using the strongest terms to denounce parliamentary suspension, just weeks ago. And they're now serving in Johnson's cabinet as he suspends parliament.

Parliamentary traditions and procedures considered sacrosanct have been tossed aside in a stunningly casual manner.

It takes unusual depth of stupidity to believe this is a good thing.

British high achievements in business and the arts - from internet technology to music and literature - indicate a normal level of intelligence.

However, the Brexit crisis has revealed what we might delicately call a less-than-optimal level of intelligence in the type who these days gravitates to UK politics.

It may be that in the modern age there's a greater variety of challenging occupations that attract the bright people who used to fancy politics.

It may be that politics is today left to those whose background and grooming ensure their acceptance at polished tables, but whose intellectual equipment isn't up to the job.

In Ireland, for example, it's noticeable that politics is now dominated by people who excel at image-making, and at bugger all else. From the Taoiseach down, Irish politicians are extraordinarily good at shape-throwing. Yet, the list of things they've made a mess of grows by the week: various aspects of health, housing, education, broadband, the control of project costs - and don't start me on Shane Ross and his electric car.

Something similar may be happening in UK politics, where people of an unusually dense nature have gravitated to the higher echelons.

It used not to be so. Even those of us appalled by Thatcher recognised she was smart. Similarly Major and Blair.

Today, thick people rule.

Take cabinet minister Steve Barclay.

Steve, bless him, meant well. It's just that, despite his excellent education (Sandhurst and Cambridge) and his background in banking and law, the evidence suggests that Steve is a bloody eejit.

Last Wednesday, he tweeted that he'd been to a business conference in Paris.

Steve pointed out the danger Brexit poses for the British car industry. Every day - every single day - more than 1,100 trucks pass through channel ports, each one loaded with car parts.

These parts must be delivered to a tight daily schedule that requires seamless movement from one jurisdiction to the next.

And the same tight schedules and predictable flows are demanded in countless other industries - including the food industry.

That is how modern business works.

Steve is frightened by the thought of those 1,100 trucks each day - and many, many thousands more - being locked in semi-permanent tailbacks at Dover, delayed by exhaustive customs checks.

"We need," Steve tweeted, "to start talks now on how we make sure this flow continues if we leave without a deal."

Poor Steve virtually vanished under an avalanche of abusive tweets. Steve is not just a UK cabinet minister - he's the actual minister for Brexit. And people were outraged that he seemed to be just now discovering the dangers of his own government's decisions. Opponents of Brexit had been screaming about these dangers for three years. And a month before the UK is due to leave, five months after the first (missed) deadline for leaving, Steve wants to "start talks now".

The first Brexit minister was David Davis, who is widely agreed to be "thick as mince".

The second was Dominic Raab, who resigned last year shortly after mentioning he hadn't realised the full extent of the UK's trade through Dover and Calais. It seemed rather late in the day for the Brexit minister to notice that Britain is an island. Dominic is known to some who worked with him in EU circles as "the turnip".

And now, Steve.

Dense as Steve and his colleagues may be, there are few things more dangerous than an arrogant man who perceives himself to be a smart manipulator.

Last week, the most powerful and decisive figure in British politics was a chap named Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson's sidekick, adviser and chief enforcer.

Dominic, bless him, is widely said to be a man who "doesn't suffer fools gladly". This is a euphemism for "Dominic has the manners of a nightclub bouncer".

Dominic has reportedly been snarling at ministers' special advisers, using rough language. He fired one last week and had her taken from the building by a cop. This will no doubt enhance Dominic's tough-guy image, and dense politicians will bite their fingernails when they hear his name - but its main effect is to make Dom feel good.

The denseness of leading UK politicians and the image-polishing habits of leading Irish politicians came together to produce the infamous "backstop".

By accepting the backstop, Varadkar enhanced his image as a reasonable man, allowing the UK and EU to begin withdrawal deal negotiations.

In the UK, stupid Tories decided the backstop was just a word - something that could be finessed out of existence once they had a deal. They gesture vaguely to "alternative arrangements", making little effort to conceal that they just don't give a damn.

The backstop is "bulletproof" if you believe Leo Varadkar.

It's a "convenient fiction", Boris Johnson said in Dublin earlier this year.

They are an unlovely lot, all three sides in this dance.

Mindful of his dreadful performance in running the country, we take comfort in the fact that Varadkar has little to do but try not to say anything embarrassing.

The EU bureaucracy has a tough job, dealing with the delusional Brits, but they are themselves riddled with arrogance. Many in the UK and elsewhere remember their cruel, callous treatment of Greece, with which this country's politicians happily engaged.

There are British politicians who have genuine beliefs on these matters - for and against Brexit. But the main players - and Johnson in particular - adopt whatever side of an issue will best advance their personal or party interests.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, activists who argue for remaining in the EU tentatively suggest that all isn't lost. Looking for a hope to hang onto, they note that Queen Liz isn't looking well. She might die, and the elaborate funeral carry-on would throw Johnson's Brexit schedule out the window.

So, if street protests escalate, the Queen may be hustled out of London, for her own safety. One trusts Her Majesty appreciates that in the coming weeks something even more drastic may be required of her.

Sunday Independent

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