Refusing to budge on the Customs Union, the Prime Minister continued to tout tweaks to the Irish backstop as a potential solution (even though they had already been ruled out by chief negotiator Michel Barnier).
The realisation that Plan B was just Plan A with a bit of slap on – that Westminster was trapped in what Twitter dubbed “Groundhog May” – ought to have focused minds and brought a sober assessment of all that is at stake in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote. Instead, business leaders raised their standards and marched into the fray with all the understated diplomacy of Brian Blessed as the fictional Richard IV heading off to the Crusades.
In the vanguard of the Leavers was Tim Martin, founder of Wetherspoon: that chain of sterile drinking sheds famous for their bland cuisine and beers chalked up on blackboards.
Trumpian in both hair and habit, Martin is to intellectual rigour what Prince Philip is to the Highway Code. Since the EU referendum, he has become known for his finger-jabbing, fact-lite appearances on BBC’s Question Time. Many a tedious week the archetypal pub bore has taken up the spot reserved for “mavericks” and passed off his cockamamie theories as serious commentary.
Positioning himself on the batshit crazy wing of the pro-Brexit movement, Martin is an enthusiastic advocate of crashing out without a deal – a prospect he embraces as a liberation from the supposed strait-jacket of EU regulations. In common with the likes of Nigel Farage, the millionaire likes to pontificate about metropolitan elites and how they use their privilege to keep an unwilling population locked in a toxic relationship.
Last week took Martin’s anti-EU trolling back into its natural environment, touring his own bars to deliver “circle of deceit” leaflets on the virtues of No Deal and to hector daytime drinkers into agreeing with him. Like a silver-maned Combo from This Is England, he made ad hoc speeches high on nationalism, and low on reason.
Martin, who insists a predicted downturn in the company’s half-year profits has nothing to do with Brexit, has already removed European wines and beers from its premises and replaced them with non-EU brands. He may not be anti-immigration – his business depends on foreign workers – but he plays to the notion of lost pride. Because “This [points to ground] is England. And this [points to heart] is England. And this [points to head] is England.”
Like most hardline Brexiteers, however, Martin shrivels when exposed to light. Pressed by journalist Owen Jones to name an EU law he disapproved of, he stuttered and stumbled. Asked about the “poverty wages” he allegedly pays staff, he became defensive, accusing Jones of pursuing a “childish” line of questioning. Yet there is nothing childish about pointing out that Martin is using his wealth and power to try to influence voters in a manner that might be considered “elitist”; nor to suggest that one reason large employers might prefer a system with fewer labour laws is so they don’t have to comply with them.
Elsewhere – and at the behest of May – Tom Enders, chief executive of Airbus, was preaching a different gospel. A No Deal Brexit would be a disaster for his company, which employs 4,000 people in the UK with around 110,000 more jobs in supply chains, and he might well be forced to move his UK plants elsewhere.
Unfortunately, Enders made the rookie error of being German and so set himself up as a target for those who cannot stop mentioning the war. Stepping into the role of Basil Fawlty was MP Mark Francois – that’s-a-European-name-if-ever-I’ve-heard-one – who accused Enders of “Teutonic arrogance”. “My father Reginald Francois was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German. Neither will his son,” he said, blatantly pitching for The Moving of the Goalposts Award, 2019. Seconds later, in an act that made the Scottish Resistance’s blundering attempts to burn the Union flag look mature, he tore up Enders’ letter on live TV.
If you want to know how things really are, you have to look at what people do, not what they say. For that, we must turn to James Dyson. Dyson has long been a fan of Brexit. Protected by his billions, the inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner once insisted the uncertainty created by the referendum created fresh opportunities.
The fresh opportunity he has decided to take is to move his headquarters to Singapore in order to “future proof” the company. Dyson says he is not a hypocrite. He claims he is shifting just two executives, leaving 4,000 employed in the UK. But to the untrained ear, this doesn’t sound like a Vote of Confidence; it sounds more like a rat fleeing a sinking ship.
It’s even worse if you put it in the context of companies such as Sony and Panasonic, who are already committed to moving their HQs to Holland; the Dutch government says another 250 companies have already been in touch.
Back at Westminster, some MPs are trying to take back control, with several proposing amendments to May’s plans. Labour MP Yvette Cooper, the chair of the House of Commons’ home affairs committee, and former Tory minister Nick Boles are hoping to secure powers for MPs to extend the Article 50 period if there is no deal in place by the end of February.
But there are others who appear not to care about the future of their country. MPs like Daniel Kawczynski, who asked the Polish government to veto an extension of Article 50, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said May should shut down parliament to stop MPs thwarting Brexit. Beacons of democracy the pair of them.
The Groundhog Day analogy resonates. But the thing about the film is that while Phil Connors is forced to go through the same awful motions day after day, he is at least inching slowly towards enlightenment. Many of our politicians/businessmen seem to be drifting further and further away.
Eventually, of course, we will have to move beyond this stasis. 29 March – or, if Article 50 is extended, a later deadline – will come and go and we will or won’t leave. But when you look at the antics of Martin, Francois and Rees-Mogg, it’s going to take a Deus Ex Machina of Shakespearean proportions to bring us close to a happy ending.