From codpieces to zeppelins: here's to the best of Brexit | Marina Hyde

There’s no definitive answer yet as to who messed things up worst – but there are plenty of committed contenders

David Cameron’s referendum on EU membership was intended to “settle the issue for a generation”. Since then, Britain has been trapped in a midsummer night’s scream that has lasted four and a half years, and has not technically actually even begun. We must hope the way to the sunlit uplands is via shit creek – because that’s certainly the direction we took. Still, as we sit and wait for deal or no deal, let’s take a look at Brexit’s best bits.

At one point, Michael Howard threatened war with Spain. On another occasion, a Ukip leader wrote to the Queen to inform her she had committed treason when she signed the Maastricht treaty. A thinktank suggested the Irish border issue could be resolved with zeppelins – the only problem being, they were insanely expensive and entirely weather-dependent. During one of the “meaningful votes” – sorry, no idea – an MP intoned to parliament: “This is a turd of a deal, which has now been taken away and polished, and is now a polished turd. But it might be the best turd that we’ve got.”

Preposterous people became a thing. Throbbing forehead vein Mark Francois compared a mild letter from the Airbus CEO with Rommel’s Atlantic wall defences. Steve Baker uttered the words: “Everybody knows I’m Brexit hardman Steve Baker.” Boris Johnson uttered the words “Fuck business.”

It was announced that a “major Hollywood studio” was turning Arron Banks’s Bad Boys of Brexit book into a $60m, six-part TV drama, which would have made it one of the most expensive shows then on TV. Kevin Spacey was tipped to play Farage. (Probably worth going back to him now.)

Brexit produced hallucinatory TV moments. Theresa May was shown a cowpat at the Chelsea flower show and pronounced it “wonderful”. A batshit Channel 4 News film saw Jacob Rees-Mogg and Alastair Campbell sat in a cafe with a gynaecologist whose German wife had left him for voting leave because he thought it would help the NHS. Or consider this exchange between Will Self and Mark Francois on BBC One. Self: “Well Mark, what’s in your codpiece?” Francois: “That’s none of your business.” Self: “Are you saying that because you’ve got a small penis?” Francois: “As a matter of fact mate, no, quite the opposite.”

According to many of its most ardent pushers, Brexit was best understood in terms of the second world war or their own virility. Perhaps the latter was one reason Theresa May was so bad at it. The only way she could have been worse is if she had done what Jeremy Corbyn demanded and triggered article 50 the day after the referendum result.

May conducted a general election campaign entirely in safe spaces where she only spoke three words: “strong and stable”. You campaign in poetry, govern in prose – so if that’s the poetry, do just imagine the state of the prose. Indeed, you lived through it, while May continued to act like she had a landslide majority (as did Labour). By the time she was coughing her way through that conference speech at which a ninth-tier comedian gave her a P45, she was excruciatingly unwatchable. Or, as Michael Gove put it: “I witnessed a great speech from a prime minister at the top of her game.”

Months, maybe years, were lavished on Tory plotting. Nigel Farage resigned repeatedly. At one point, he said he was on the point of calling for a second referendum. Vince Cable, centrist leader of a remain party, missed a key Brexit vote in order to attend a London dinner party reportedly about the setting up of a new centrist remain party. James Dyson moved his HQ to Singapore.

Michael Heseltine told Tatler he had strangled a dog. Theresa joked publicly to a chastened Boris Johnson about this. Heseltine clarified that though the dog had gone limp, it didn’t actually die, and revived after the incident. Likewise Boris Johnson.

Ukip had a punch up in the European parliament building. The MEP who came off worst was treated in a Strasbourg hospital, with the official party statement on his progress reading: “Steven is sick of croissants and ready for a full English.” Rather than resign, one tweedy Ukip leader barricaded himself into a provincial hotel with his 25-year-old racist girlfriend. His successor appointed Tommy Robinson as an adviser.

In Brussels, the theory developed that Britain simply could not be this unprepared – it had to be a ploy. Islington-based blogger Dominic Cummings would unleash 20,000-word drive-bys on what the government was getting wrong. Dominic Raab revealed he “hadn’t quite understood” how reliant the UK was on the Dover-Calais crossing. He was Brexit secretary at the time. Chris Grayling … but no. Still too raw.

Judges, newspapers, the BBC, the House of Lords, the civil service – all were blamed for politicians’ failures. David Cameron would emerge occasionally from his £25,000 shepherd’s hut to post pictures of his feet or take £100,000 for a speech.

As for who messed Brexit up worst: Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, even the Brexit party – was ever a contest more closely fought? No one managed anyone’s expectations. Brexit remained a Rorschach blot in which people continued to see what they wanted to see for months and years after they should have known better. Boris Johnson congratulated May effusively on the backstop, while Michael Gove said: “The final whistle blew … and Theresa May has won.”

Cut to a couple of months later in the House of Commons, where an MP had referenced an anti-Brexit sticker in John Bercow’s wife’s car, and was shouting at the Speaker: “HAVE YOU DRIVEN THAT CAR WITH THE STICKER THERE?” In unrelated news, it emerged we buy half our sperm from Denmark.

The above, of course, barely scratches the surface of the past few years, in which the UK repeatedly tried and failed to take back control of taking back control. Is the beginning finally in sight? Will Boris Johnson ace the statecraft this week, allowing us to move on to the creative phase of all this creative destruction? I know the prime minister likes a quote, so I offer the following observation of the Romanian writer Panait Istrati, when visiting the 1930s USSR of purges and show trials. “All right, I can see the broken eggs. Now, where is this omelette of yours?”

• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

• Join Marina Hyde and Guardian parliamentary sketch writer John Crace as they look back at a political year like no other. Thursday 10 December, 7pm GMT, 8pm CET, 2pm EST Book tickets here


Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
North-east England is not obsessed with Brexit – it’s just a symbol | Phil McDuff
Brexit stands in for hopes and fears. Bring it down to the level of MEPs and trade policy, and few people care, says writer Phil McDuff

Phil McDuff

13, May, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The Brexit party has made its first U-turn. But expect more surprises from Farage | Darren Loucaides
The so-called leave alliance will help the former Ukip leader to focus on key constituencies, says Darren Loucaides, a writer based in Barcelona and London

Darren Loucaides

11, Nov, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Keep calm – the Top Guns of Brexit have got our backs | Marina Hyde
Here’s hoping the EU negotiations can be fixed with a little psychopathic machismo. Because the Tories are awash with it, says Guardian staff columnist Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde

08, Jun, 2018 @4:36 PM

Article image
Pity the Brexit 52%, led by cowards and charlatans | Rafael Behr
The Ukip chaos is revealing. Leavers are being betrayed by leaders who lack credible ideas, says the Guardian columnist Rafael Behr

Rafael Behr

20, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Britain’s imperial fantasies have given us Brexit | Gary Younge
As Theresa May is discovering, the UK’s overblown sense of its place in the world has led to us overplaying our hand, says Guardian columnist Gary Younge

Gary Younge

03, Feb, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
In this Brexit soap opera, it’s time for Emmerdale-plus-plus | Marina Hyde
The characters are universally awful. Only an extreme plot twist can resolve things, says Guardian columnist Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde

07, Dec, 2018 @5:14 PM

Article image
Don’t wish for a new party to end the Brexit mess. It will be a far-right one | Martha Gill
Polls tell us a new political grouping would be to the right of Ukip, says freelance political journalist Martha Gill

Martha Gill

23, Jul, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Nigel Farage’s Brexit party? Sorry but I’ll be washing my hair | Marina Hyde
The comeback dolt has nothing to offer but false heroics and narcissism, says Guardian columnist Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde

12, Apr, 2019 @3:52 PM

Article image
Only the public – not MPs – can force the best possible Brexit | Denis MacShane
There will be no ‘final Brexit deal’ for MPs to vote on, and they won’t change their mind now anyway. Instead, take the campaigns to the doorsteps, says former Europe minister Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

06, Jun, 2018 @7:30 AM

Article image
The best way to scupper Putin and Trump? Scrap Brexit | Natalie Nougayrède
The Russian and US presidents see Brexit as a vindication of their worldview, says the Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrède

Natalie Nougayrède

27, Dec, 2018 @4:02 PM