The Pantomime Macabre of Brexit

15th May 2019

Welcome to the Shadow Dance of Brexit.

Every few days now is a play-cycle.

Theresa May stays as prime minister and announces she is bringing her deal back to parliament by some means or in some form.

Anyone against this makes her only more adamant.

And we all know that she will fail, as she has failed before.


Elsewhere Brexit supporters will promote their proposals – proposals that have no substance.

Their pretence is that there are easy answers.

And against them there will be Remainers jeering and complaining about the Brexiters.

Few Remainers say anything positive about remaining: it is enough that they jeer at and complain about Nigel Farage and those who enable him.


And this Shadow Dance, this Pantomime Macabre, will continue for what will seem an eternity.

Boos and cheers.

The same lines, the same rejoinders, the same effrontery.

And all the time, the departure of the UK from the EU by automatic operation of law comes closer.

The two extensions so far fool many into thinking extensions are easy.

Time grinds on, and the Shadow Dance continues.

And in all this, fewer and fewer remember or care what is actually at stake: the practical problems of EU departure and how they can be managed.

But that seems like something for another day.

We can deal with that after tomorrow.


Thank you for reading me on this new(ish) blog, where I am hoping to blog almost daily.

I expect to be blogging here more often, instead of spending time on Twitter.

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Comments are welcome but pre-moderated, and they will not be published if irksome.

42 thoughts on “The Pantomime Macabre of Brexit”

  1. Please keep up your commentary, it’s helping to keep me sane! Your fear is my fear, the arguments on both sides are so poor and both are ignoring the rapidly approaching cliff edge!

  2. “Few Remainers say anything positive about remaining…”

    Actually quite a number of us do, and on your Twitter feed David. For many of us Freedom of Movement is the biggest reason for remaining. Freedom to live, love, work and raise a family in one of 27 other EU countries, and those which are part of the Single Market. It’s losing this that is the red line for many of us. For me every time Theresa May or someone else who supports Brexit says, “We will end Freedom of Movement once and for all,” a horrible cold chill goes up my spine. Not for me. I’m 63 and I’m going nowhere. But for all the young people whose lives will be severely curtailed by this. It’s like something out of Soviet Russia. One thing the Tories always stood for was freedom.

    There are many other positives about remaining. Keeping our seat at the table. Being a strong power. Being a contributor to the EU, being part of something bigger than us. Cooperating with our neighbours instead of fighting them.

    I don’t bother to boo Farage because there’s no point. I resent the coverage he’s had on the media because the media made him a star, same as the US media made Trump a star. They are similar as neither is offering any positive, hopeful or optimistic. And we see what happens when a broadcaster dares to challenge Farage. And what happens at his rallies. I don’t boo him. I fear him. I fear his following. From whom I hear nothing positive about leaving.

    We do speak often about the positives of remaining. I can see few, if any, positives from leaving but if it happens, well a declining economy will have far fewer cars on the road so it’ll be quieter and less pollution. And be easier to get tickets for events for the few who still have a decent disposable income. For the rich, there are myriad opportunities come with leaving. For most of us, it’s a massive decline in chances of thrive rather than just survive.

    Survive or thrive? I know which I want. We are the positive ones. We have the strong, positive message. And I hope in the end, we win. Not for me but for those who come after me.

    1. I completely agree. I believe we are on a slow and tortuous path to a 3 way referendum. To leave with no deal (to satisfy Farage and the no deal supporters) to leave on terms of the withdrawal agreement or to continue our EU membership. There are many ways to run this either over one round or two, a majority in excess of 50% settles it.

    2. David has chosen to ignore all the remainers who have been saying positive things for the past three years, for some reason.

      1. Please look at the actual wording I sued: “few”.

        Your comment says “all”.

        Please comment on what i do say, not what I don’t say – it saves us all time!

  3. I would disagree with regard to no one stating the benefits of remaining. The benefits are not losing what we have – free movement, single market, customs union etc. while not having to adopt Schengen or the Euro. Personally I know we will probably overcome losing those benefits over the next decade or so but my objection to brexit is that not many people actually understand the overwhelmingly complex symbiosis we have with the EU – it’s like conjoined twins. It’s not often that both survive being separated and the EU has a lot of the vital organs.

  4. You say “Few Remainers say anything positive about remaining:”. This may be true in Parliament where the noise certainly drowns the information, but in other contexts – the marches, town hall meetings, canvassing – Remainers are more than ready to play the “What did the EU ever do for us” game. The problem is that Brexiteers, at least those who get reported, cannot get beyond “Democracy “ “Sovereignty” “Control”. And the press and BBC encourage the limitation of the debate to soundbites only.

    1. the reason Brexiteers cannot get beyond “Democracy “ “Sovereignty” “Control” is that unless you address those in a satisfactory way then all those benefits you mentioned can be removed at the whim of the EU with the UK unable to act in any way to prevent it.

      1. “all those benefits you mentioned can be removed at the whim of the EU with the UK unable to act in any way to prevent it.”

        Beautiful example of Brexit paranoia, on the same lines as “They hate our democracy or our freedom”.
        1) The EU cannot act on ‘whim’. There are procedures – with far more safeguards than Westminster can provide (Henry VIII powers anyone?) that prevent ANY action more serious than a temporary funding of emergency relief being adopted without a full (some would say excessive) legal process.
        2) The UK, its government, its MEPs and even the officials in the Institutions have as much power as any other country’s organs of government, which is to say that very little can pass without the equivalent of a 2/3 majority (unlike the UK where a 52% majority is apparently all that is required to steer into the abyss). If an initiative appeared to attack democracy then it will be challenged in the European Court which is perfectly capable of saying “NO!”
        3) Any objective look at the EU’s activities in the last 20 years will conclude that while not perfect (I personally disapprove of how Greece has been treated) it has been on the ‘right side’ far more often than not – and more often than any individual member state, just because of the exhaustive nature of the procedures involved.

        1. Cameron’s failed renegotiation showed where the power lies. To take a major and a minor case; the EC demographics projections all put the mid-century UK population in the 75-80 million. That’s an increase of around 12-16 million, most of which is either due to future immigration, or prior immigration having more children. That’s a huge number of people – more than Sweden. And what we found in the renegotiation is that the UK is powerless to stop this whilst within the EU.

          On a minor note, vaping is regarded in the UK as a health success as it steers people away from harmful injection of smoke. However that is not how the major figures in the EU see it so if we remain in the EU it is likely to be severely restricted, and we will have to implement this law despite the majority opinion in the UK disagreeing with it.

          Remainers are trying to have it both ways; on the one hand, the CBI and the TUC are calling for remaining in the EU precisely because it makes all our laws and regulations, and then folks such as yourselves are arguing that in reality it doesn’t. These positions cannot both be true.

  5. The problem here is that the practical issues of Brexit are being completely avoided by both Labour and Conservatives. They are avoiding addressing the most important aspects of BREXIT as it relates to the British people in the future.

  6. …and as the curtain comes down the players can be heard shouting abuse at each other as they leave the stage and return to their daily life and its challenges.

    Meanwhile on another stage a lonely figure rages at iniquity and predicts the end of civilisation.

  7. Witty and accurate.

    The flip side, of course, is that a lawyer can, instinctively, recognise when ‘Leave’ has been fought to a standstill – is that not what the present stasis represents?

    It doesn’t take a genius to perceive the measure required in order to resolve it.

    I trust the book is developing nicely. It ought to – so much material.

  8. A problem for Remainers is that we’re prepared to acknowledge that the EU – like all human institutions – is imperfect. Brexiters by contrast have a very simple, if dishonest, message.

    1. it isn’t that simple. The things you regard as imperfections others regard as the point of the EU. And what are you going to do about the imperfections? In a herd of unicorns, Tom Watson’s “Remain and Reform” is the alpha-male of unicorns.

  9. Brexit supporters do not think there are easy answers.

    Now, whenever I hear “In or out?” I translate that into a different question -“What is the best way for the UK to negotiate relationships with the EU and EU countries?” And test the answer to the first question against the second.

    Remainers are simply not addressing the second question. The ‘inevitability of Remain’ may be a practical answer to the In/Out question, but as an answer to the UK’s long-term strategic interests it is simply dreadful and until Remainers get to grips with presenting Remain as a meaningful answer to the second question they will continue to fail to convince a large proportion of the UK’s population.

    1. I’m not sure what this means. Remainers would say that being in the EU is the best way for the UK to negotiate relationships with the EU and the EU countries. How is that a dreadful answer?

      1. because if this were true then Cameron would have come back from the renegotiation with something positive, but he came back with nothing.

  10. “And against them there will be Remainers jeering and complaining about the Brexiters.

    Few Remainers say anything positive about remaining: it is enough that they jeer at and complain about Nigel Farage and those who enable him.”

    This is not an untrue observation. Yet, we are not (at least not yet), as a polity, deciding formally in a campaign, which will conclude with a further referendum on whether we wish to Leave or Remain. Nor is there (at least not yet) a realistic possibility of the government revoking Article 50 without a majority voting to Remain (at least not yet).

    Your own judgment, as a commentator in this matter, you go on to say, is that “what is actually at stake” is not whether we should Leave or Remain, but, “the practical problems of EU departure and how they can be managed”. I agree. That is the battleground (at least for now). And we have calculated that until these problems have been resolved, it is unlikely that the mandate from the first referendum is potent enough to ensure we will Leave. We have further calculated that these problems are not resolvable.

    So, Remainers approach matters on the terms that you have identified. It follows that the present task for us is to challenge the Brexiteers to demonstrate that they have a strategy to deal with and respond to these practical problems. And we listen to their answers and we amplify them: “Betrayal”, “Leave means Leave”, “Which part of ‘Leave’, don’t you understand”. In other words, they have nothing relevant to say. And they are now split into two camps: “dealers” and “no dealers”.

    Two key and remarkable achievement of Remainers thus far are firstly to have succeeded in mobilising Parliament to eliminate a “no deal” Brexit. As a matter of law, on two occasions where a government intervention was required to prevent a no deal Brexit, such interventions (extension requests) were forthcoming. And secondly, to have co-opted the “no dealers” into blocking Brexit. They are voting in the same lobbies as we are.

    When informed commentators like you can say that “what is at stake” is more than simply the challenges associated with leaving and is now again whether we should leave at all, Remainers must respond appropriately.

    We did not do so in 2016. We found no effective way to oppose the simple, ruthlessly effective yet disingenuous Cumming mantra of “Taking back control”.

  11. It is depressing that the standard of debate that is reported publicly is so poor. There is a very good case to be made for remain but as it is not full of very nice controversial soundbites it never gets much coverage. The issue was the same as at the referendum and we seem to be repeating the process again. The media should hang its head in shame at the weak challenge it has made to the weak arguments of the Brexit side. The BBC seems only in the last couple of weeks to realise how biased its coverage appears to be.

  12. I don’t agree that Remainers say nothing positive about remaining in the EU. We recently produced a long thread on Twitter about the positives of remaining, for instance. But I do think we are increasingly angry at the way Leavers want to strip us of our European rights, just as women in the US are increasingly angry as right-wingers try to strip away their reproductive rights. Brexit and the anti-science rightwing movements in the US come from the same place and have the same contemptuous disregard for the rights of others.

  13. Laura Marcus makes good Remain points, above.

    For us in N Ireland there’s more. Leave has the potential, even perhaps the threat, of stirring up a lot of trouble here, particularly in relation to the Border.

    No other part of the “United” Kingdom has an international frontier on its doorstep.

    And the paradox here is that those vocal for Leave are those most vocal in wanting to preserve the union of/with the UK. And yet it’s very clear that by Leaving they will undermine the UK, and quite possibly break it.

  14. I think that the current situation is merely the logical climax of “kicking the can” down the road at every chance since 24/6/16. The only goal of HMG would seem to be to “muddle through”, somehow, without grasping the nettle of the consequences of leaving the EU and being honest with the nation as to exactly what that means.

    May seems only to be interested in prolonging her tenure as PM for as long as possible whilst engaging in an impossible plate-spinning act designed (forelornly) to keep her party together.

    She continues to insist that her deal is the best (and only) deal possible, yet she refuses to accept that parliament has rejected it and the only possible chance to see it implemented is via a confirmatory referendum, refusing to put it back to the people. Never has the lack of competence at the heart of British government been so cruely exposed as it is right now.

    1. >> I think that the current situation is merely the logical climax of
      >> “kicking the can” down the road at every chance since 24/6/16.

      But this has, frankly, been obvious from day 1 of May’s premiership. I wrote in 2017 that, sooner or later, Brexit Britain would find all roads to the future blocked by an enormous and highly toxic mountain of cans.
      If this wasn’t completely obvious before December 2017 then the thoroughly botched farce leading to the agreement containing the so-called ‘backstop’ —when May had to take several wild swings and misses at the can— must surely have made it unavoidable and unmistakable.

      A large part of this is a principal agent problem: any honest or remotely viable approach to the issues risks blasting the Tory party into multiple splinters, and May lacks both the leadership skills and the courage to address this even were the situation tractable (which it isn’t). So she doesn’t.
      One might add that she apparently also lacks the intelligence and foresight to see that her approach cannot ever lead anywhere good and continually injects further venom into the UK’s already ailing body politic. Otherwise we must conclude that she does perceive some of this and yet selfishly chooses to carry on with no viable plan except self-preservation, regardless of the frighteningly dangerous territory into which her (in)actions are forcing us.

      May has no gift that will enable her to achieve anything, but she HAS exercised her full power to prevent any alternative approach from being realised, and continues to do so, yet even in the face of catastrophe Parliament is too timid, too fractious, and too immersed in the narcissism of small differences to wrest the wheel from her hands.

      We don’t need to wait for historians to tell us that we are witnessing the unequivocal demonstration of the UK polity’s unfitness for purpose in the modern world: although we cannot tell whether it will be the final demonstration or merely a decisive step in a prolonged agony, we must at least be close to “the end of the beginning.” What follows will be uglier and more dangerous.

  15. Theresa May’s deal is as appetising as Mrs Doyle’s egg sandwiches. “Ah go on, go on, Father… they’re diagonals!”

  16. You say, “The two extensions so far fool many into thinking extensions are easy.” But the extensions were so very much easier for all concerned than any other course of action. Since Brexit is proving to be technically impossible, repeated postponement becomes logical. Swerving being more logical than colliding.
    Would any of your Danish or Prussian readers not agree that postponement of the Schleswig Holstein Question would have been better than the bloody events of 1864? There are still many Germans living in Northern Schleswig and many Danes still living in Southern Schleswig. Lord Palmerston was reported to have said, “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.” In the end, after lurching into a form of madness that infected thousands of Danes, Council President Bishop Ditlev Gothard Monrad forced the issue into a disastrous war before leaving Denmark to settle in New Zealand. After Monrad, the question was repeatedly postponed until a border was set at Versailles in 1919 and generally accepted as an invisible internal EU border after Maastricht in 1992 until January 2019 when the present centre-right-liberal Rasmussen government started building a 43-mile border fence to keep wild boar from infecting Danish pigs in the land where pigs outnumber humans. We’ll never forget Brexit, but the pain will subside if we keep postponing a decision.

  17. “And we all know that she will fail, as she has failed before.”

    A related, and to my mind more serious question: what would it mean for the UK’s constitutional balance of powers and for the very integrity of its system of Parliamentary democracy if May’s ‘deal’ or a some fairly close approximation were now to pass, having already been rejected multiple times and by record majorities? Would this not be an even more serious outcome for the UK than to crash out of the EU without ratifying any ‘deal’ (a catastrophic eventuality whose gravity I wouldn’t for a second under-rate)?

    In practice, of course, many aspects of the British constitution can be simplified to, “With a Parliamentary majority, do what you will,” so, in the most formal terms, perhaps not very much.

    But if the executive (of a minority government) can now rely on being able to force through legislation —legislation of constitutional import, to boot— by some combination of institutional paralysis (thank you, FTPA!), procedural manœuvre, obfuscation and obstruction of any process which could lead to a viable alternative, and by baldly running the clock down to force the Commons up against a terrifying deadline, then the undemocratic gap of Lord Hailsham’s ‘elective dictatorship’ has surely widened to become an unbridgeable abyss. If the slim majority (96!) of 1969 evoked a democratic deficit, then 2019 must incarnate bankruptcy and the ongoing collapse of the currency itself!

    One might, of course, argue that it is always possible, in theory, for the “reasonable” majority in Parliament to “take back control” and it is up to them to do so, but have we not seen enough to realise that the practical realities (and tribal calculations) render this argument moot?

  18. … and so this evening in the Guardian Merkel says “Europe must unite to stand up to China, Russia and US”. Lots of discussion about how Europe must stand together. So why the deal that seeks to make the UK a colony of the EU? Why not give the UK a deal on the ability to curtail inward immigration from the EU as a price for the UK standing with the EU?

    This is ridiculous behaviour from the EU. Why on earth would the UK stand with the EU now? It is just nuts.

    Everything in business or politics is a deal. You have to give something to get something. The EU/Remain are offering nothing at the moment when they need allies.

  19. The problem is that when you say Brexiters you lump together a mass of very different groups of people. There are those who support an ultra Brexit – they support no deal but cannot have their hands anywhere near the steering wheel when the car crashes, the ERG.

    Then you have the, it’s Brexit if I say it’s Brexit group – which is most of the government and is represented by the WA. Then you have the, it isn’t Brexit unless it is our Brexit group, which encompasses some of the Labour party. Then you have it could be Brexit if we ask the people again before we Brexit – most of the rest of the Labour party the Lib Dems, Green and Change UK.

    Add to that the nuance of we don’t want Brexit we should just revoke group – some of Labour, the SNP and assorted others. Then you have the, we don’t actually care about Brexit at all as long as the border stays open and we keep the border between us and the Republic but on no account must there be a border down the Irish Sea group, the DUP.

    And you wonder why there’s a macabre dance going on – I amazed they haven’t all resigned and fled to the EU for the sake of their sanity and being on the winning side!

  20. There will be a solution, sooner or later, and we already know roughly what it will look like. It will come when a consensus forms behind a compromise. This requires that NEITHER side, Leave or Remain, should get what they want. Parliament will need to devise a holding operation, or postponement, to “park” the issue provisionally while MPs get on with resolving by consensus some of the other big issues that are really important to the well-being of all the people. The Brexit holding operation will need a form of words that can be sold as “fair to both sides” so that neither loses too much face. No-one would have “betrayed” anyone: Leave and Remain would both still be possible.
    That stage would logically lead on rapidly, not to a referendum as per 2016, but to some democratic initiative, perhaps like indicative popular votes, that helps Parliament to measure the relative support for each option, numerically, not according to the volume of noise each generates nor the degree of vitriol each side expresses (especially via the Press).
    One idea floated is for 650 constituency referendums, preferably held simultaneously, in which voters would be asked a simple question: “Do you support or reject the position on Brexit of your own MP? ”. Among the advantages of this idea:
    1. It would not be a repeat of the dangerous and divisive exercise in direct democracy that has proved incompatible with the UK’s constitutional system of Representative Democracy;
    2. It would put an end to the claim that 17 million Leave votes in 2016 represent the “voice of the people” for the UK’s population of 67 million in 2019;
    3. MP’s would be obliged, if they haven’t yet done so, to present their position, and the reasons for it, clearly and convincingly, to everyone in their constituency;
    4. It would give each MP a reliable and up-to-date picture of their constituents’ opinions;
    5. It should be more difficult for external actors to use social media to influence the 650 individual outcomes.
    Big question: how would the EU react to the idea of the UK asking for more time, please, to reach a consensual solution?

    1. Many constituency MP’s do not currently reflect the views of their constituents but are driven by personal belief, e.g. John Redwood for one. How would MP’s reflect their constituency voting decision ?

      1. An interesting reflection…. but in constitutional terms the MP has a duty to represent the interests of all of his/her constituents. As most constituencies still seem to be seriously divided on whether to leave or remain in the EU, the MP will thus be duty-bound to find a way of addressing the arguments and concerns of both sides. That must mean the MP will be obliged to seek and construct a consensus. How else can he/she fulfill their constitutional duty?

        1. That is certainly what is supposed to happen.

          However, it does seem that there are some MPs, particularly those with ‘hard Brexit’ views, who have used and still use their ability to influence government and laws for their own (financial) ends.

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