Euan McColm: Irish food shortage the backstop of a scoundrel

In my daydreams, there’s a special place in Hell set aside for politicians who claim their remarks have been taken out of context. Theirs is the cowards’ defence, the weasel-worded response of the well and truly bang-to-rights.

No decent person in public life, so far as I can recall, has ever used this line. Rather, it is the last refuge of the charlatan.

When a politician says their words have been taken out of context, what they mean is they realise their words show them up to be the terrible person they are. These people never offer the correct “context” for their words because they are bullshitting. Their words were always taken perfectly in context.

Which brings me neatly to former Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, the latest unspeakable toerag to drop the context bomb.

It emerged on Friday that Patel, a Brexiteer of the killer robot variety, had suggested the possibility of food shortages in Ireland following a no deal departure from the EU should have been used as leverage to encourage the Irish government to drop support for a backstop plan.

Given the often dark history between Britain and Ireland, the very idea that our government might effectively threaten their Dublin counterparts with food shortages is especially nauseating. It’s a suggestion that reveals a uniquely unpalatable blend of cynicism and insensitivity. And there is no context in which this would not be so.

Later on Friday, Patel tweeted: “It is clear my comments on ‘No Deal’ have been taken out of context by some. We should go back to Brussels & get a better deal. There is still time. Let’s take back control of borders, laws & money.”

Anyone wondering in what context these remarks should have been seen was to be left guessing by Patel, who offered no clarification. Instead, she indulged the fantasy of the grifters and spivs behind the Leave campaign that the EU would offer the UK a more beneficial deal if only the UK would demand it.

This supremely arrogant notion, the idea that a puffed-up little UK – a UK made smaller still by their actions – could dictate terms if only more of us “believed” in Brexit, remains popular with hardcore Eurosceptics.

Patel and her fellow travellers – failed former Brexit secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, the ludicrous back-bencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example – sustain themselves with a fantasy that the draft agreement struck between Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU could have been made stronger through the power of self-belief.

It was always the case that the UK was going to be at a disadvantage in Brexit negotiations. We never had cards worth playing. The EU – as is its duty – has moved forward in such a way that the unique benefits of membership are protected. The very idea that we would be afforded some of those benefits from the outside was always a nonsense and no amount of interventions of the “we should have demanded more” variety can change that.

Whenever the downside of their case was pointed out in the run-up to the 2016 vote, Brexiteers parroted the line, favoured by Alex Salmond and those he led in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, that such claims were a strategy of “project fear”. It didn’t matter how compelling the evidence, any suggestion that leaving the EU might not be entirely painless was grandly dismissed. It wasn’t that their case was flawed, it was that their opponents wished to terrify the people with a campaign of lies.

This project fear garbage continues, even as the EU – through the limited agreement it is willing to strike – shows us that many of the warnings given have turned out to be quite correct.

May presses on, trying to build support in Westminster for a deal that will satisfy neither the hardline Eurosceptic Little Englanders of Brexit nor the majority of MPs who backed Remain in 2016.

The arrogance of Brexiteers who think the UK can, as Boris Johnson once said, have cake and eat cake has echoes in the position adopted by a cross-party group of MPs that the UK should leave the EU but join Norway in a free trade area inside the European single market.

You’ll simply never guess – it turns out that the UK is in no position to demand that, either.

Senior political and business figures in Norway have made that abundantly clear.

The so-called Norway-plus plan, which would require the UK to seek to join the European Free Trade Area group, consisting of Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, is already dead.

On Friday, Heidi Nordby Lunde, an MP in Norway’s governing Conservative party, and leader of Norway’s European movement, was refreshingly blunt.

“Really,’ she said, “the Norwegian option is not an option. We have been telling you this for one and a half years since the referendum… so I am surprised that after all these years it is still part of the grown-up debate in the UK.”

Nordby Lunde added: “You just expect us to give you an invitation rather than consider whether Norway would want to give you such an invitation. It might be in your interest to use our agreement, but it would not be in our interest.”

All of the alternatives to the PM’s draft deal being suggested by senior politicians are non-starters because, simply, they would require other nations to weaken their own positions.

That’s not to say that May’s plan holds much appeal. It is simply the case that it really is the only deal on the table. Anyone who suggests otherwise is 
using the “project total bullshit” playbook.

No amount of bluff and bluster, whether it’s the suggestion we should demand the Norwegians let us into their club or the horrific idea that we should threaten Ireland with the prospect of food shortages, can change the fact that Brexiteers’ greatest achievement is the humiliating diminishment of the United Kingdom.

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