Let’s be honest. No one has a scooby what the **** is happening with Brexit right now. This is politics at its absolute worst. Really big, important, complicated stuff which is being communicated in a ludicrous way to hide the fact that no one knows what’s going on, using weird language to try and blag their way through an interview. And, guess what? We have a new political catchphrase in town.
“Regulatory alignment” was something your osteopath would do to you, but oh no. Now “regulatory alignment” is the new Article 50. Anyone who saw my stand-up show State of the Nation last summer will know that I had a particularly unique take on what triggering Article 50 actually meant, but it’s way too scatological to sully the pages of a quality paper like the Scotsman. And watching arch-Brexiteer Tory MP Dominic Raab yelling the words “strategic ambiguity” at Kirsty Wark on Newsnight last week was enough to make you weep.
Everyone is dead confused. Most of all poor David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, who this week admitted on LBC that he wasn’t the brightest tool in the box. I admire him for this rare moment of honesty and self-awareness. But people were quick to turn on him on Twitter (can you believe it?).
Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy, who is one of those Remoaners, quipped about how thick Davis was until someone pointed out that when he was on Celebrity Mastermind, and was asked the question “which blue cheese do people like to eat at Christmas”, he replied red Leicester. Politics is a brutal business.
But one big political message that cut through was the fact that Theresa May had gone from zero to hero in a matter of days. She had bungled the Irish question because she had forgotten the most basic rule in current British politics – always remember to consult with the real Prime Minister, Arlene Foster.
How can you forget to square off the most important woman in Britain right now on pretty much everything but especially the issue of the Irish border? Arlene was not happy and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. There was the mother of all stand-offs.
Arlene wouldn’t take her calls or call her. Theresa was probably frantically checking WhatsApp to check when Arlene had last been active. It was pretty tense stuff.
Theresa was made to look an idiot, mainly by herself (again) and had to make amends fast. Her reputation was hanging by a thread. I know this feels like a daily occurrence but it was really bad this time.
Even people who actually like her, including LBC presenter and former Tory adviser Iain Dale, were tweeting that it may be curtains for May. But then something miraculous happened. Theresa worked her pop socks off to get Arlene in the right place – cue loads of Come On Arlene memes – then missed her own Christmas party, got on a plane in the dead of the night, went back to Brussels and got that blasted deal done.
The crowds went wild. All the people who had called her a total loser were now comparing her to Winston Churchill for securing a landmark deal which to the average person on the street looked like we had conceded on lots of issues and were still going to pay a ton of money to leave.
But the substance of the deal almost didn’t matter. And the fact that it isn’t actually a done deal was conveniently sidestepped. It became a symbolic moment in the never-ending Brexit saga because something had finally happened.
Like most things related to leaving the EU, the fine print was irrelevant, you could turn this moment into what you wanted it to be. It could be all things to all people.So, if you’re Nigel Farage, you hate it (natch) and it amounts to a BETRAYAL which would be met with the WRATH of the British people for whom ONLY he speaks… just as soon as he’s back from Alabama supporting Trump’s buddy, alleged child molester Roy Moore, and hanging out with Steve Bannon and Fox News.
But if you’re on the Brexit right-wing of the Tory party, the plans meant you could call off the dogs for the time being. It allowed Iain Duncan Smith to say he wasn’t “jubilant, but nor do I feel betrayed”. He was allowed to feel like the winner having given it the big one last week about how the EU needed to “back off” or “move on” while everyone else stifled their sniggers at the Quiet Man turning up that volume again.
If you’re the leader of the Labour party it allowed to you carry on having your cake and eating it. Jeremy Corbyn could shake his head and (legitimately) say, “What a shambles” in sorrow rather than anger and then urge the Prime Minister to crack on with the next phase of talks while remaining – suspiciously – “strategically ambiguous” himself.
If you’re a Remainer who wants as soft a Brexit as possible (like me), you can cling to the fact that the Irish border situation is far from solved and may well end up being a way to stay in the single market and customs union. So, the draft agreement is a bit like going to see a tarot reader or your horoscope – you can see what you want. It’s become a mystical political mirror which reflects what’s convenient for you right now. And it has delivered a rare moment of comfort for May.
Her press operation seems to have suddenly ramped up a gear. Instead of disastrous photo calls where she always looks isolated in a lonely sad-face way, they’ve clocked that pictures of her charging on to planes in the middle of the night and working hard – still by herself of course – are much better to show that she’s finally knuckling down on Brexit.
The problem is that there’s a very fine line between triumph and disaster in politics and while the optics look much better than they did, this key issue of “strategic ambiguity” remains. And that basically means nothing is really sorted.
She may be applauded by the right of her party now, but what will be inevitable as the negotiations progress to round two is that there will be choices.
From now on it will be all about the trade-offs, from immigration to tariffs, and which side will May pick. Will she be able to do the right thing for the country and the economy – particularly on the single market and the customs union – and have the courage to take on her hardcore Brexit Stormtroopers?
One thing is clear, the era of giving the impression that we can have all the goodies from our relationship with the EU while leaving the bad bits behind is well and truly over. The really hard bit starts now.