“What I’ll do when we leave? Well… I’ll be free.”
Outside the House of Parliament, George, a sprightly 70-something in a neat suit with beret and medals, was manning a flag, some arrangement of poppies and union jacks and a WW1 trench scene.
Along the railings, enthusiastic Leavers had put up big red signs: “Brexit means Brexit”, “Leave Means Leave”, nothing very subtle. The Remainers were on the other side of the road, in Parliament Square, festooned in the gold stars ‘n blue of the European flag, the star seeming to swim round their dazed heads.
Tourists streamed by them both, en route to Westminster Abbey. The game was to try and find an actual Brit and convince them of… what? To march for or against a no-deal departure? To sign a petition? To, to, to… to just be here and say I DO NOT CONSENT to my dreams being trashed?
Only George was serene, a smile on his face, as he waved his mad flag.
“We’ve just got to get on with it… get our freedom.”
“But,” I said wearily “what will you do the day after Britain leaves that you can’t do now?”
“I’m just focused on that at the moment… but, well, I’ll be free.”
It was perfectly circular, the happy warrior.
“24 years in the army. Been everywhere.”
Today is the 1001st day since the UK voted to leave. Round and round they go. And me.
Staggered, bleary-eyed, through the gates at Heathrow this morning — we landed at terminal three, my favourite, the very worst, a ’60s concrete pile — and into the WHSmith. The headlines screamed from the paper trays: “Dismay at May”, “An insult to the whole of parliament” and worse. Together with that standby, a photo of UK PM Theresa May looking haggard and desperate. She looked like I felt. Something bad must have happened while I was in the air.
24 hours before the EU Commission was to announce, before a dinner, that an extension on leaving the EU had been granted to Britain, of weeks or months. But it was anticipated such an extension would be contingent on the government getting the negotiated deal passed in some form, or developing a clear new path to something that they could agree to. Such a process would require May to stitch together a massive “yes” vote to something, so she only went and trashed parliament and her opponents altogether, didn’t she?
May took to the airwaves to give an address to the nation, which was written in the second person (“You are tired of the game-playing …”, “you want us to focus on the NHS, on knife crime …”) as if she could implant thoughts directly in viewers’ heads by a mind-meld.
Putting the blame squarely on parliament as a whole, it was a desperate bid at presidential-style populism in a system not designed for it, and it has been greeted with bewilderment among the general public, and fury among Tory backbenchers — both Leavers and Remainers.
So unity of a sort was achieved.
Some extension of the departure date was supposed to have been announced by 6pm UK/7pm Belgian time. It’s 9.45pm in the UK as I write this, and negotiations have continued all the way through dinner. Five minutes after I file, the bastards will announce. I am so tired I can barely prop my eyelids up, but this seems the perfect state in which to deal with this horror, the fug and mind-slippage of jet lag, with an overlay of middle-aged sleeplessness.
“When did I get involved as an activist? Well I think it was Theresa May’s Mansion House speech in February 2017.” Across the road, at the foot of a statue of George V, James, a pale kid, has a clearer account of why he’s here.
“That was when hard Brexit was put in place. The referendum itself didn’t dictate how we’d leave. May did that.”
The Remainers — now, really, Second Referendum-ers, for a “people’s vote” (wasn’t that the first one?) — seem good people. But eccentric, taking the full opportunity, to dress up in papier-mâché bowler hats, and pop-deconstructed Union Jack clothing. Both sides had “honk for …” signs, so the cars speeding round were making a lot of noise, but no one could tell what it meant.
On BBC rolling news, rumours slip from the EU dinner.
“It’ll be May 22 as the absolute line.”
“‘No, it’ll be April 11.”
Both dates relate to European parliament elections, which are edging close to chaos. But even this seems contingent on May getting anything at all through the Commons next week. And I can’t even. And there’s still no… oh hang on, the dinner’s just finished. It’s May 22, if and only if a deal goes through the Commons next week. If there’s no “yes” vote, they have until April 12 to come up with a plan B.
Outside parliament the cops were arresting people. Three in the time I was there. Someone shoves someone in a union jack waist coat and suddenly they’re in handcuffs; aloft, several vans there, they’re loaded into and away. Much more of this and the whole country will be yearning to be taken away in a van…
Guy Rundle will be on the ground in the UK, reporting on Brexit as the catastrophe unfolds.