It was Marx (Karl, not Groucho, although in this case it could equally have been either) who said that history always repeats itself twice; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. It seems increasingly as though the UK Government has taken this on board in relation to Brexit but decided to reverse the order, by doing the farce first and the tragedy later. Two years into the process, we have one of the key ministers in the whole process admitting that he hadn’t really understood the significance of the UK’s most important trading route, whilst the Prime Minister seems to have convinced herself that the only way she can get her own cabinet to agree with her plans is to demand that they vote on them without seeing the advice underpinning them.
The underlying problem remains, as the Guardian put it, that the Prime Minister “has never had the courage to choose between irreconcilable propositions”, preferring to pretend that there is no inconsistency between the two in a doomed attempt to unite her party around a form of words which can only be meaningless in the final analysis. The latest example is the idea that it perfectly possible to agree a deal which guarantees that there will ‘never’ be a hard border across Ireland, but which also gives the UK an inalienable right to withdraw, selectively, from that part of the deal any time it chooses.
It’s true, of course, that a country can withdraw from any multinational deal at any point – Trump has demonstrated that in spades. But I’m sure that the EU27 realise by now that they are dealing with a negotiating partner who they cannot and should not trust for a moment, which is why they will insist on a form of words which enables them to enforce the whole of any agreement reached. What no country can do is to decide which parts of a legally-binding treaty it will honour and which it will not – and at the same time demand that any or every other party to the agreement continues to honour all their obligations.
The farce part seems destined to continue for some time yet, leaving the rest of the world looking on at the UK’s foolishness with amazement. But whilst it’s OK for us all to laugh at the daily farce emerging from Downing Street, we need to remember that unless we end it while we can the tragedy is still to come.