Sketch: Boris Johnson versus the ditch
Boris Johnson said he would rather be dead in a ditch than request an extension to the UK’s EU membership.
Unfortunately, though, it seems the Prime Minister was too hasty in assuming the support of the ditch in enacting his plan. It was a real mis-step, in retrospect. The ditch seems to have won the negotiations, and in doing so proved itself to be a much cannier operator than the UK Government had previously anticipated.
So Boris Johnson is not dead in a ditch after all. And, with his plan thwarted, it’s easy to laugh at his humiliation, but it’s worth keeping in mind what this says about our whole proud nation. This is an unelected ditch, telling us where to go, what to do, and where the PM of a sovereign state can or cannot lie around dead. It’s also unaccountable, when you think about it, given we don’t actually know where it is.
Theresa May would probably have given the ditch billions in additional funding to win its support, but then, given she was once defeated in negotiations with a car door, she may not be the best role model here.
The bill is not alive, but it is also not dead, so it’s not a corpse. It might be static, but it might not
It’s also possible a technological solution could solve the impasse. For example, they could hook Johnson up to a virtual reality headset and allow him to think he was lying dead in a ditch – and had thus delivered a central plank of his agenda – while he lay safely in a Downing Street bathtub.
So here we are, with the PM unable to deliver his pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ and instead compelled to request an extension to Article 50, in this case, by sending one letter to the EU requesting a delay to Brexit, alongside another saying he really didn’t want one. It was a bold plan, with Johnson apparently intent on undermining his own position at the exact same moment that he first outlined it. It was the letter writing equivalent of heckling yourself. Normally, politicians only contradict a position after first asserting one. They don’t usually do both simultaneously.
Whatever the reasoning, the letter was accepted by the EU, and so Johnson’s hopes for leaving by 31 October – and avoiding the ditch – lay in his ability to win parliamentary support for his withdrawal agreement.
Yet, despite Labour proving itself less skilled in negotiation than an inanimate hole in the ground, after a few hours of Commons debate it became apparent that Johnson couldn’t get his way there either, with the PM then threatening to pull the vote and head to a general election. Can’t pass a deal, can’t die in a ditch. Apparently those were the only available options.
Unfortunately, though, things then took a further turn into the surreal, with Speaker John Bercow forced to explain to MPs that Johnson hadn’t actually withdrawn the bill, but instead “the technical term for the status is that it is in limbo”. This in turn provoked some confusion, given anyone watching for the last three years would surely have assumed we were not in limbo, but in hell.
But you can imagine how much MPs enjoyed the discussion, with Jacob Rees-Mogg pointing out Pope Benedict XVI had “abolished limbo”. “I wonder whether the bill is not in the heaven that is having been passed,” he said, “or in the hell of having failed, but in purgatory, where it is suffering the pains of those in purgatory.”
He added: “The key thing to remember about limbo is that to enter it, one cannot still be alive, and therefore the bill is no longer a live bill.”
Labour MP Clive Efford, meanwhile, also pushed for more detail, questioning whether the bill was completely dead, or whether it could be “resurrected”. Again, Bercow was forced to step in, explaining that “the bill is not dead, but it is inert”.
“It is not on a journey. It is not progressing or moving from one place to another. It is inert, or alternatively, it might be said to be static, but it is not a corpse.”
The bill is not alive, but it is also not dead, so it’s not a corpse. It might be static, but it might not. The bill is in purgatory, but least it’s not dead in a ditch. And clearly constitutional politics is a very confusing area, but it’s quite possible we could actually learn something from this ditch. It would definitely be good to hear more about it. People like its style. In sharp contrast to the Commons, this is a ditch that gets things done.
And so it’s fortunate that there is one last option available here. Rather than continue to fight amongst ourselves, we could just put the ditch in charge. After all, why should Boris Johnson be the one that gets to crawl into it? What about the rest of us? What are we meant to do? Maybe we should all join the ditch, together, as a nation.
In fact, as the wrangling over Brexit continues, that may be the one thing the British public agrees on.