Brexit is go - now it's all about damage limitation

Notice of our formal intention to quit the EU has been delivered, to a ragged fanfare of tin-eared comparisons.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 30 Mar 2017

So today is the day that the fateful Article 50 letter was delivered to give formal notice of our intention to quit the EU, a portentous note passed directly to the hand of Donald Tusk by our man in Brussels Tim Barrow. (Or as the Daily Mash has it, delivered by ‘A Bulldog strapped to a Spitfire,’ which will have been stroked by Dame Vera Lynn before taking off.0

It’s a moment freighted with political and economic significance and the extended metaphors have been out in force as a result. First up are the rosy-tinted Brexiters who have tried to smooth over the off-the-scale uncertainty of any outcome using their usual dollop of syrupy and misguided nostalgia.

If Barrow possessed and was entitled to wear a full dress uniform, there are surely many on the leave side who would prefer him to wear it, and for the whole occasion to be filmed in black and white by a Pathe Newsreel cameraman perched pluckily atop a mobile studio van, ready for a plummy voiceover poking the finger at Johnny foreigner for trying to run our affairs. Don’t they know who won the war?

At the other extreme are the equally-deluded remainers who still seem to believe that the whole thing can somehow be stopped, as if by 2017’s equivalent of that seminal 80s TV moment when Dallas’s Pammy Ewing ‘woke up’ to find her dead husband Bobby alive and well and in the shower.

The Texas oil soap’s scriptwriters had lost the plot so utterly that they had to write off an entire series as ‘only a dream’. The sense of having slipped into an alternative reality may be the same for those of us who wish the Referendum was a product of Michael Gove’s nocturnal imaginings, but Brexit is neither a dream nor a nightmare – it’s real, it’s happening and trying to pretend otherwise is a cop out.

The Letter has also been widely likened to divorce, the end of the bluff, stiff-upper-lipped UK’s 60 year stormy love/hate relationship with its beguilingly cool and sophisticated, but in the end just too excitable, European partners.

This is yet another extended metaphor that doesn’t land properly – for starters the Article 50 Letter is more in the way of an ‘It’s just not working any more’ conversation, part of the early probing skirmishes rather than the full-on, no-holds-barred battle for house, kids and antique spoon collection that will no doubt ensue.

Nothing has really happened yet, bar a statement of intent. And even though separation is the ultimate goal, once achieved neither side can readily vacate the Former Marital Home – we will both still be there, eyeing each other bruisedly across the Channel.

For another thing, those old national stereotypes just don’t wash anymore - there are plenty of us Brits who after all that time and despite all the ups and downs now regard ourselves as being at least as European as, well, all those other Europeans. 48% may not be quite enough to win a referendum but it’s a pretty substantial minority all the same.

All those years of union - however fractious - have left their mark. Cultural cross-fertilisation has done its work and we now understand one another in ways that were unimaginable back in the days that so many leavers seem to want to return to. Surely not even the hardest of hard Brexiters could imagine Theresa May echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed and parochial 1930s ‘Faraway people of whom we know nothing’ sentiments?

That is a great achievement but it is hard to see how the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, complex, tetchy and attrititional as they will doubtless be, will do anything but erode that hard-won understanding.

Damage limitation is now the order of the day, hardly the most inspiring mission but vitally important nevertheless. The best – the absolute best – we can hope for after probably years of thankless and tricky horse trading is a settlement rather less favourable than the one we started out with.

So perhaps the divorce metaphor is apt at least in one way – it’s only the lawyers that can be guaranteed to come out smiling.

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