Brexit the Musical: in Edinburgh, I understood how farce can be more persuasive than argument

If this satire were to tour the whole country, who knows what effect it might have?

The Edinburgh festival fringe at its peak mounts more than 1,800 shows a day, but this year from my sample it was Brexit the Musical that really caught my imagination. From the first scene, where a Boris Johnson in Union Jack underpants realises with horror that Leave has won – “ We will bugger the economy,” he sings – to the last, where he and his sidekick “Govey” finally discover the plan that will save them and the country from “catastrophe”, you are ever more uncomfortably aware that however effective a Brexit satire, it is trumped by Brexit truth.

This joyful assault on bumbling, hypocritical Tory politicians completely at sea faced with the forces they have unleashed never misses its target. The portrayal of limelight-loving Andrea Leadsom as vaingloriously prejudiced and supremely ignorant particularly resonates – as does a David Cameron who, after his resignation, no longer has to pretend he likes ordinary people. A Boris Johnson who bounces with effortless unjustified self-confidence from debacle to debacle is also more than recognisable – the buffoon-in-chief in a cast of buffoons.

You find yourself shaking your head in disbelief at the familiar follies, even while you laugh. The generosity of the writing makes the characters all too human prisoners of their own idiocy. Yet these are the people and party who run the country: why is such a shower not exposed to more satire and mockery?

It would be so much better if we did not have to live through the consequences of Brexit, but too many people are emotionally invested in the Brexit case to allow argument, facts and reason to change their minds. Satire – showing how the project and people behind it are completely farcical – has the better chance of persuading millions in any imminent electoral or second referendum test that they have been sold a pup and must save themselves from both the perpetrators and the wreckage.

Yet Chris Bryant, the musical’s author, could not have anticipated the position papers that the government has published over the past fortnight in which it is becoming clear that the planned special and deep relationship that it wants with the EU is to become a shadow member – with no control.

Britain will shadow the EU’s product regulations and the bulk of EU law; it will respect indirectly the judgments of the European court of justice; freedom of movement will continue; we will create a shadow customs union; the border with Ireland will remain open. And we will pay a bumper cheque, as even Boris Johnson now recognises, for the privilege. The Brexiters will be able to say we have left the EU, when in fact we will be shadow EU members with even less of a voice than Norway, Liechtenstein or Switzerland. It is one of the great cock-ups in British political history.

The reasons why are obvious. There is no viable option but to stay as close to the EU as possible. Every key economic constituency – trade unions, universities, technology startups, manufacturing, including the food and drink industries, the City, agriculture, the creative industries, the NHS, the big four accountancy partnerships and magic circle law firms, foreign direct investors – are losers from leaving the EU. The property market is freezing. Real incomes are under pressure. The pound – now a “toilet currency” – is close to parity with the euro. The Tory party – for it is the Tory party that has created this mess – is fearful for its very future.

Nor are there huge easy trade deals to compensate for the loss of European markets. China, pledged to create Made in China 2025, is no soft touch; nor is India; and the US has long wanted to open up British agriculture and public services to US multinationals. Dr Liam Fox, surely one of the most inadequate politicians to hold high office since 1945, has simply no idea of the dynamics of world trade nor the likely negotiating position of his cherished non-European counterparts. He is as vapid as Brexit the Musical’s Andrea Leadsom.

For perhaps the biggest message from the show is that there is no wider cultural constituency for Brexit. The Foxs and Leadsoms are cultural oddities. It is true that some of England’s poorest areas – eight of northern Europe’s 10 poorest regions are in England – voted Brexit, but this should be understood as a proper protest against a status quo that provides so little for them. The millions of disadvantaged are not natural allies of Johnson, “Govey” or now Jacob Rees-Mogg.

As we reach 2018 it will be game on: there is a potential majority in the House of Commons for at the very least insisting on a referendum on the final deal – being a shadow EU member with no say or control – or maybe even stopping the process completely with a second general election. Great countries don’t go over cliffs without some attempt at saving themselves.

This parliamentary majority can only be unlocked by the Labour leadership changing its position of studied ambiguity, building on the piece written by Keir Starmer in these pages today. National and party interest are aligned – one of the happiest positions for any politician. Privately, a number of former Brexiters in business and the media regard the whole exercise as an unfolding disaster. Blair and Brown were permanently frightened of the right: Corbyn, especially now, does not have to follow the same callow path.

But when we’re faced with the next test of public opinion, however it happens, the economic case for continued EU membership and having a say in its rule-making has to be rammed home, along with the high ground argument about making common cause with European countries who share our values against the world’s Donald Trumps and President Xis.

But above all, let’s make the EU case full of hope – and, on top, a carnival of fun and mockery. There must be multiple versions of Brexit the Musical mounted in every pro-Leave constituency in the country, continually revised as every twist and turn in the story becomes ever more incredible. Every old people’s home, every ex-mining or ex-steel town, every seaside resort fearful of immigration should see the show and laugh at Brexit. Let’s smile our way to victory – and use satire, that most British of reflexes, to consign Brexiters to history.


Will Hutton

The GuardianTramp

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