5 things about this week (22 October 2019)

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2019

Embed from Getty Images


In hindsight, it all seems inevitable.

Of course Boris Johnson was going to throw the DUP under the bus in order to deliver a Brexit deal by accepting a customs border splitting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK.

Of course he cares more about the Conservative party winning than he does about the Union surviving.

Of course the supposedly hardline ERG would forsake their unionist solidarity at the prospect of the hardest-possible Brexit this side of no-deal.

Of course enough Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies would be ground down by the process and decide to fold their opposition.

Of course the right-wing media would hail it as a triumph despite the deal being near-identical to the one offered two years ago by the EU and rejected by Theresa May, to cheers from her backbenchers, as a deal that no British prime minister could accept.

As I write, in fact, the fate of Brexit is still undecided. It remains quite possible that Parliament could yet thwart attempts to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and that a general election might have to take place first (in which case all bets are off).

But momentum has shifted, I think decisively, in favour of Getting Brexit Done the Boris way… albeit the Prime Minister has failed to ‘fess up to voters that this is merely the end of the beginning of the trade negotiations with the EU which will now stretch ahead for years.

The rush to push through legislation reminds me of 2017, and the drive to do something to show Brexit was happening by triggering Article 50 — even though no-one had even a sketch of a plan for what was to follow.

There will be no economic impact analysis, the Chancellor, Sajjid Javid, tells us, because Brexit is “self-evidently in our economic interest”. That, in just a year’s time we will face another no-deal exit (unless the government decides to extend the transition period and can muster the votes to do so) is hand-waved away by MPs desperate to pretend to themselves, as well as to the voters, that Brexit can now be swiftly resolved.

The Brexit Saga is Done. Long live the Brexit Saga!



One coda. Before the idea Boris Johnson’s deal is a strategic master-stroke takes too firm a grip of (some) Conservative Brexiter imaginations, it’s worth remembering last week was supposed to be when the general election he wanted took place. Are we really supposed to believe his Wirral meeting with Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar — widely held to have been pivotal in securing a deal — would have taken place just a few days before polling day?

No. Boris Johnson believed (not unreasonably) that this Parliament would never approve any Brexit deal. So his strategy was election first, negotiations after. I’m guessing (if he’d won) he’d have extended Article 50, blaming someone, anyone, and then started the intense discussions we’ve seen over the last fortnight.

Or (unlikely) he’d have gone for no-deal and ended up in an even worse position, forced to make a plea-bargain with the EU. All in all, I think the Prime Minister can feel mightily relieved the Benn Act saved him from his own worst enemy (himself) because he’s now in a much stronger position than he would have been under his original strategy.



Conventional commentariat wisdom states that the Lib Dem recovery will be torpedoed by Brexit happening. Perhaps, though I’m dubious.

True, it will be impossible to campaign to ‘Stop Brexit’. But the millions of Remain voters who’ve petitioned, campaigned and marched against Brexit aren’t going to suddenly be reconciled. The last 3.5 years has radicalised many, inculcating a sense of European identity in many Brits which had previously lain dormant.

Perhaps some will return to the Conservatives, especially if, let’s accept the possibility, Brexit does boost the UK economy. Those on the Remain left will stick with Labour or the Greens.

But for the many mainstream Remain-identifying voters who want (to coin a phrase) a stronger economy and a fairer society, the Lib Dems will likely be the party of choice. Especially as the party will make pro -Europeanism a key plank of its manifesto in a way Corbyn’s Labour won’t.

After a decent interval, the Lib Dems will very likely become the party of Rejoin, a reverse Ukip. That will, in turn, give the party the chance to foster something it has long lacked: a core vote, capable of sustaining it through the vicissitudes of political ups-and-downs.

Brexit happening will stymie any theoretical Lib Dem hopes of leap-frogging straight into majority government. But it may lay the groundwork for more sustained electoral growth.

PS: the Never Mind the Barcharts live podcast – Is Dominic Cummings a Genius? – is now available to listen to here:

A fab episode featuring Nick Clegg’s former Director of Policy, Polly Macknezie, and former No. 10 special advisor and Lib Dem head of media, Sean Kemp — both of whom have experienced working with Classic Dom.


I’ve been reading (and so should you) Robert Saunders’ essay in the New Statesman, Myths from a small island: the dangers of a buccaneering view of British history — here’s a taster:

In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a series of commentators held up Britain’s global past as an inspiration for the present. Yet they did so in a curious manner. Empire barely featured in these remarks, pushed aside by a history centring on trade and innovation. The result was a heroic vision of British history that was global, but not imperial. It recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present. …

The use of “trade” as a euphemism for “empire” became a staple of Brexit ideology. … David Davis told the makers of the 2016 pro-Leave documentary Brexit: The Movie that “Our history is a trading, buccaneering history – back to Drake and beyond. That’s what we’re good at.” Dominic Raab, likewise, has urged the British to resume their historic role as “buccaneering free traders”. …

Such rhetoric showed no understanding of the role that empire actually played in Britain’s trading history, in breaking open new markets, protecting the sea lanes and enforcing British commercial superiority. Instead, it rested on a vague appeal to a “swashbuckling spirit”, resonant of plucky little Britons singeing the beards of mightier powers. …

This has at least three destructive consequences. It detaches memories of British greatness from the material conditions that made it possible; it overstates what Britain can achieve in the world as a small nation, “standing alone”; and it exaggerates the power of positive thinking as a national strategy. Failure can be blamed on those who refuse to cheer along: on “doomsters”, “pessimists” and “saboteurs”, who simply refuse to believe with sufficient fervour.


I’ve been watching BBC2’s Motherland, written by the team of Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan, Holly Walsh and Helen Linehan. It remains both funny and relatable (at least to this knackered co-parent), albeit the well-developed protagonist of series 1, Anna Maxwell Martin’s Julia — a put-upon mother trying to balance work, life and family with next-to-no help — seems to have been superseded by a more one-dimensional character with a streak of cruelty. Still, that does make more space for Diane Morgan’s Liz — a consistently reliable source of one-liners (“Life’s too short to dick about with aubergines”) — to rightly be allowed her own story arc.

I’ve also been continuing to watch BBC4’s Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History — I’ve mentioned it here before, but it really is exceptional. And more relevant, in this pre/post-Brexit world than ever.

AND I’ve also been continuing to catch up on BBC1’s Killing Eve — I’m now onto series 2, and it’s a lesson for other TV programmes in how less can be more: at 40 minutes, each episode is perfectly paced, tightly scripted, and doesn’t out-stay its welcome. How many hour-long shows can you say that about?


View this post on Instagram

Steam train: anticipation | reality

A post shared by Stephen (@stephentall) on