The Derbyshire village of Coton in the Elms is the place farthest away from the sea in all the United Kingdom, suggesting it cannot be long before it is selected by Boris Johnson’s government as a border site. We are soon to be so in control of our borders that we will establish them in places long prevented from being borders by such iniquitous entities as the EU, and physical geography.
In recent weeks, the government has announced exciting plans for “inland border sites” in places such as Warrington, Birmingham and Epping Forest. There will be no place too landlocked to be left out of lorry tailbacks and additional layers of red tape – previously the preserve of coastal elites – suggesting the government’s levelling up agenda is already deeply and meaningfully under way.
In Kent, near what was once the so-called border, any 7,000-lorry queues will be equipped with state-of-the-art roadside amenities such as portable toilets, stand-pipes, and receptacles in which to dispose of plastic waste or hitchhikers. In Suffolk, the Financial Times reports that Felixstowe, Britain’s biggest container port, has been ground to a virtual halt in peak hours by Covid restrictions, and a shortage of labour to respond to them. Happily, Felixstowe has a high-level adviser in the shape of … hang on, let me get my lorgnette … ah yes, a Mr Chris Grayling. You may be familiar with his work. No doubt he comes very highly recommended.
In retail, the Tesco chairman has warned that fresh food shortages could last for up to “a few months” post Brexit, sure to enchant the only populace in the world who got this far through this year of pandemic and thought: how can we make this a bit extra? How can we make the experience more immersive, more internationally eyerolled, more character building? Or to put it another way: how on earth can we still have one foot left? Be a love and pass us the gun.
Meanwhile, home secretary Priti Patel continues her plans to deter migrants from making Channel crossings by placing UK processing borders as near as Ascension Island and Papua New Guinea, as well as with such things as wave machines and floating walls. Consider this Total Wipeout: English Channel Edition, and accept that Netflix buying it would mean we could tick the “Global Britain” box at a stroke. We could become the leading exporter of dystopian factual entertainment content, sure to make up for losing everything else. In the meantime, you will recall the recent row as to how stories such as the wave machine and so on were making it into the public domain, which took in conspiracy theories such as the notion that Patel’s long-suffering civil servants were having grotesquely terrible ideas on purpose, to make her look stupid.
Given this full-spectrum sunny outlook, which is all slated to unfold whether there’s a deal or no deal, it was really no surprise to find Michael Gove explaining yesterday evening to the Commons that the UK could actually provide “better” security for its citizens without even joint law enforcement operations with the EU. Clearly, the millstone of access to live passenger data and the European arrest warrant is a mere hindrance to UK police and intelligence services, who Gove knows will regard it as “better” to guess which flights suspected criminals are on, and “better” to wait over a year to extradite fugitives in complex ways as opposed to completing the process in a frictionless couple of months.
Taking an alternative view, however, was Theresa May, who asked the question that provoked this interesting response – and was subsequently caught on camera mugging the word “WHAT?!?!”. (May’s post-career commentary is certainly becoming far more entertaining than her playing days ever were – rather like her idol Geoffrey Boycott.)
As for Gove, what you can say? I remember being in one of the hideous post-debate spin rooms during the 2010 general election, when Michael was barrelling round trying to condemn Nick Clegg for having referred on air to the recently deceased Polish president’s far-right party as “nutters”. This, Gove kept repeating to anyone who’d listen, was “the sort of comment that no one who wants to be taken seriously should utter”.
What a long way we’ve come. Michael Gove himself utters three comments less serious than that every time he goes on air. We’re talking about a man who declared, back in May, that he had “on occasion” driven to test his eyesight. He is arguably the leading expert in unserious comments. And thanks to Michael Gove, we know what Britain feels about experts.
Random fibs/expertise he uttered at the dispatch box last night included the suggestion that Michel Barnier’s offer to intensify the abandoned Brexit talks was a “constructive move” that he welcomed. As it goes, despite the EU seemingly meeting every one of the UK’s demands to restart talks, Downing Street immediately insisted it won’t return to the table.
Again we come back to that word, “seriously”, which – like many vocabulary items that have had the misfortune of being co-opted by this government of chancers – now only seems to mean its opposite. This is an administration where sarcastic air quotes come as standard.
According to every representative of the government who has honked on to the airwaves over the past fortnight, the EU has not been negotiating “seriously”. And yet, has a country ever acted less seriously than the UK has spent the past four years doing over Brexit? Around the world we are viewed with the ironic bemusement of which we used to regard ourselves the leading exponents. The UK is now the only entity which takes the UK seriously.
It is the sort of crackpot place where some artless third tier cabinet minister is sent to stand up in its own parliament and confirm the government’s plan is to break international law, in order not to adhere to the terms of its own treaty, which it told everyone was a triumph, then fought and won a general election on the implementation thereof.
Back in April, a cabinet minister insisted to the Times: “We’ve built a hospital in nine days, they can do a Brexit deal in nine months.” Well, it won’t be long before we find out how that one went – though perhaps it is mildly relevant to consider that Downing Street and its chief negotiator, David Frost, did not themselves physically build any Nightingale hospitals. If they had done, it would surely be a place designed to make its patients feel seriously worse, with serious medicine shortages by design, where accidental amputations are dressed up as a fantastic opportunity to live with fewer limbs, and which was staffed by nurses who wear the uniform with all the reassurance of Heath Ledger’s Joker. And 10 minutes after cutting the ribbon on it, they would blow the whole place up to prove a point. We know this is an administration that has always loved a catchphrase. But of all the ones by which to be governed, we surely drew the shortest straw with “why so serious?”
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist