Sketch: The Fantastic Dr Fox
Liam Kirkaldy: The fox is in the henhouse and, more worryingly, so are David Davis and Boris Johnson
At times, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Brexit negotiations have descended into farce.
David Davis met Michel Barnier. Michel Barnier met David Davis. They talked, they exchanged petty insults, and by the end of the week an increasingly red-faced Dr Liam Fox was standing, in front of some shrubbery, accusing the other 27 EU member states of “blackmail”.
Strong word, blackmail. It says a great deal about the bureaucratic intransigence of the EU that they would try to blackmail a fox in the first place. You can’t negotiate with a fox – the plot of Fantastic Mr Fox proved as much. Also, unlike Dr Fox, Mr Fox didn’t even have the might of the British civil service behind him. He still got loads of chickens.
As Liam Fox put it: “We can’t be blackmailed into paying a price on the first part [the exit payment]. We think we should begin discussions on the final settlement because that’s good for business, and it’s good for the prosperity both of the British people and of the rest of the people in the European Union.”
Of course, before going any further, it might be worthwhile considering what Fox actually means by the word blackmail. Usually it means demanding something in return for withholding compromising information. But what could the EU possibly have on the UK? The rest of Europe already knows most of our embarrassing secrets. They had Nigel Farage in Brussels for years. So what is there to expose?
No, in truth, the EU’s attempts at blackmail amount to a demand that the UK pays for outstanding budget commitments, some EU pensions and various liabilities. In short, it wants the UK to pay for stuff it agreed to pay for. Which certainly raises questions about Fox’s understanding of blackmail.
Picture the scene: it’s well after midnight and the restaurant staff were meant to have gone home hours ago. A collective sigh is heard. Liam Fox stares obstinately at the piece of paper in front of him, drumming his fingers. Yes, he ate the food. But no, he will not be blackmailed. Even as the police arrive, the Secretary of State for International Trade is passionately arguing that it’s crucial for business that they should address other issues of importance, rather than just the exit bill.
In fact, sometimes, watching Fox, you have to wonder if he would be happier living feral in the wild. Free from red tape and bureaucracy and common decency, he would be able to give free rein to his natural urges.
But no one wants to start talking about Fox’s urges, especially not in a respected current affairs publication. This isn’t the place for that. And anyway, who can really blame Fox, given the provocations he has endured. Only days before, Michel Barnier – who curiously looks quite a bit like you would imagine David Davis would look like if he had been brought up in France – had launched a deeply unfair criticism of the UK’s approach.
Speaking to the press, Barnier claimed the UK’s proposals were marked by “a sort of nostalgia in the form of specific requests which would amount to continuing to enjoy the benefits of the single market and EU membership without actually being part of it”.
It was a ridiculous comment. And insulting. Barnier would never have got away with it in the good old days.
But at least he was upbeat. “I often hear that I am frustrated and angry,” Barnier said. “I have never shown frustration, I have shown impatience, I have never shown anger, I have shown determination.”
It sounded like the final, bitter words of someone being sacked from The Apprentice, but to Barnier, it was meant to suggest confidence. He had the “calm of a mountaineer”, he explained. Though you might imagine that the mental state of a mountaineer would depend on the state of the mountain.
And how is the mountain? Pretty unstable from the look of it, and it’s not as if the three musketeers of the UK Brexit team – Fox, Davis and Johnson – are especially well known for their steady, predictable approach to policy.
Well, the fox is in the henhouse now alright. In fact, from a chicken’s point of view, the only thing worse than having a fox in the henhouse would be if it was joined by Boris Johnson and David Davis. A fox is one thing, but imagine having Davis crashing around, Johnson entangled in the mesh fencing, feathers everywhere. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
But in a way, we all knew it would end like this, if we’re truly honest with ourselves. With David Davis standing in a coop, covered in chicken blood.
Metaphorically, at least – no one is saying any of that has any actual basis in reality. Indeed, it would probably be legally questionable to do so. They could cock-a-doodle-sue.
So no, if the whole blackmail thing has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t get carried away with words. A more measured approach is the right one, and anyway, things can’t go on like this forever.
The clock is ticking, after all, and regardless of the Fantasies of Dr Fox, both sides will need to come together, swallow some pride and try to reach a compromise. Unless they’re too chicken.
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Exactly 50 per cent of respondents to the poll said they would favour a new vote on Brexit in a ‘no-deal’ scenario
Calls for a vote on the final deal negotiated with the EU have been growing in recent months, with a string of high-profile MPs throwing their weight behind the campaign
A YouGov survey for The Times found that 42 per cent now back a referendum on the deal