The Brexit update, with a virus

As usual, Brexit’s a mess. Here’s what I’ve been able to sort out. 

Boris Johnson has worked out a Brexit deal with the EU, but don’t ask the marching bands to tune up just yet. It still has to get a majority in parliament and everybody’s counting noses to see if it stands a chance. 

At the moment, Johnson has a working majority of minus 40. Nope, I didn’t make that up. Finding a majority for the deal depends on four key groups:

The Democratic Unionist Party–a small but crucial Protestant party in Northern Ireland–isn’t supporting the deal  

Why not? Because it would align Northern Ireland with EU trading standards and customs, leaving an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The open border is considered crucial to keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, which nobody really want to mess with. But keeping that open border means creating a border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

A border between Northern Ireland and Britain is a red line for the DUP. Or a red flag. They’re unionists. Their primary commitment is to keep Northern Ireland in the UK. A border between Northern Ireland the Britain means–or they believe it would mean–that Northern Ireland becomes increasingly Irish and decreasingly British.

The current deal would give the Stormont Assembly–Northern Ireland’s governing body–the right to end or renew the arrangement periodically, but (unlike the last proposed deal) it would only need a simple majority to renew it. Since pro-EU parties have a thin majority in Stormont, we can assume that it would be renewed. 

Not that the Stormont Assembly’s been meeting in recent years.

Are you following any of this? The more I explain, the less sense it seems to make.

Next group? Hard-core Brexiteers in the Conservative Party. The going belief has been that they’ll take their cue from the DUP, although since Johnson’s one of their own he may be able to sweet-talk them. Or he may not. The interesting thing here is that the elements they objected to in Theresa May’s deal–all focused on the Irish border–haven’t been resolved.

Why not? Because they can’t be–not if you want to both placate the DUP and keep an open border in Ireland. But Boris makes all the right noises, from the hard Brexiteers point of view, even though he’s offering them less than Theresa May’s deal did. 

They may back him or they may not. 

As Yogi Berra said, “It’s hard to make predictions. Especially about the future.”

Of course, he also said, “I didn’t say half the things I said.”

Third group: MPs who Johnson expelled from the Conservative Party. Talk about awkward conversations. Some of them are nervous about being stampeded into an agreement that they haven’t had time to look at in any depth. 

So what’s the rush? Johnson wants to say he got a deal before October 31. 

Why does that matter? Only because he said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask for an extension.

Some members of this group are saying the current deal is worse than the one May negotiated–which Johnson voted against. Twice.

Others will probably vote for it. This is far from a unanimous group.

Final group: Pro-leave Labour Party MPs who want, at a minimum, to maintain the EU’s standards on employment, consumer, and environmental regulations and rights. Dump those and the government’s likely to lose these votes. Johnson has said he promises to uphold “common high standards,” but I’m not clear whether this is politically binding or just rhetoric. 

The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is warning that the deal risks “triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up our NHS to a takeover by US private corporations.” Whether that warning will bring this group back into the fold is anyone’s guess. The Labour Party–like the Conservatives–is deeply fractured.

An additional group of MPs may vote for the deal if it’s combined with a second referendum, where people are given a choice of this deal or staying in the EU. It’s not clear whether Labour would back a second referendum at this point.

To anyone who’s frustrated with parliament’s gridlock (and who isn’t?), a comment from The Brexit Blog comes as a timely reminder that parliament’s a pretty fair reflection of the country as a whole. In an assortment of polls, no single solution has a majority.

How would people vote in a referendum? The poll results are inconsistent One puts no deal at 34% and staying at 22%. Another has staying at 34% and no deal at 23%. The answers depend in part on the range of choices offered and also, quite possibly, on the sampling method. Or maybe we’re all too dizzy by now to give consistent answers. 

Does it make sense to hold a second referendum when people already voted to leave? It may be the only way out of this mess. No one, during the first referendum, had a clue what leaving meant–including, based on the evidence, the people running the Leave campaign. So setting an actual deal in front of people and saying, “Is this what you want or should we call it off?” has a certain logic. 

Meanwhile, anti-Brexit campaigners have filed a suit to block the government from putting the deal in front of parliament. A BBC article says, “They believe it contravenes legislation preventing Northern Ireland forming part of a separate customs territory to Great Britain.” They’re also asking the court to write to the EU on behalf of the government asking for an extension, using a power called nobile officium. Which sounds like something out of Harry Potter but, as far as I can tell, isn’t.  

Parliament’s expected to meet on Saturday to consider this mess. That’s also when the government’s expected to release the details of the deal.

According the the Independent, Brexit has already cost the British economy £70 billion.

In the meantime, I have a stinking cold and haven’t managed to be funny about any of this. Blame it on the germs. 

The news from Britain: gin, scotch, and the gender pay gap

With climate change threatening grain crops, researchers have isolated a gene in barley that will–thank all the gods you may or may not believe in–ensure that the world’s supply of scotch is safe for the foreseeable future. 

The gene is one of more than 39,000 and it helps barley survive drought. Or to be more accurate about it, “when it’s prominently expressed” the plants are better able to survive drought, so resistant crops can be planted in the future. Assuming that the extreme weather that barley-growing regions face will be drought, not flood, although a mix of the two isn’t out of the question.

The new plants will, presumably, also be good for the food supply, although that didn’t make it as far as the headlines.

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Irrelevant photo: California poppies. Californians or not, they grow well in Cornwall and once you get a few going they’ll self-seed. Generally in places where you didn’t want them but they don’t object to being moved.

The pope got stuck in an elevator in the Vatican in September. Not for all of September, just 25 minutes of it. I hope I’m not the only person who finds that funny.

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Unrelated to that (although I’m sure I could manage a very nice segue here if I cared enough), a Catholic school in Tennessee pulled all the Harry Potter books out of its library because “the curses and spells in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

A group of parents wrote to a local radio station anonymously, questioning the ability of the priest responsible to “critically assess and discern fact from fiction.” They didn’t question his use of the semicolon, but they should  have. It’s diabolical. And also wrong.

As far as I can remember, J.K. doesn’t include a spell for removing a pope from an elevator (or a priest from a school). If she had, I’d write the pope (he’d be thrilled to hear from me) and recommend the books. 

There’s your segue, at the end instead of the beginning, but in troubled times like these, you take your segues where you can get them.

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In all my coverage of Brexit, I haven’t mentioned the demonstrators–pro and anti–who gather outside parliament and make noise when the newscasters turn on their mics and try to explain the latest Brexity zigzags. At least one of the demonstrators plays bagpipes. Others bellow. And one–. I’m going to have to quote from the Guardian here, because it puts it gorgeously. It talks about “the largely inexplicable presence of a man with a glockenspiel playing the ‘Imperial March’ from Star Wars.”

Which is one way to get your voice heard, even if no one knows what your voice is trying to say.

Or maybe he’s just found a place to practice his glockenspiel where he won’t annoy his family, just the reporters.

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A truck (that’s American for lorry) carrying 7,039 gallons of concentrated gin was in an accident in Cheshire in September. If you need that in liters, it’s 32,000, although I suspect someone’s rounded it up or down to the nearest something or other. Once you get past the first shot or six, you don’t really care, do you? 

Concentrated gin? It was news to me as well. According to the Langley Distillery, the distilling process produces something that’s “between 78%-82% ABV and cannot be used alone to make gin. We blend the concentrate with neutral alcohol, to create high strength gin that is reduced with water to bottling strength.” 

The missing 22%-18% in that first sentence is made up of adjectives that the distellery lovingly applies later in the description but we can’t afford them this late in the evening, so we’ll stagger home without ’em. 

ABV means alcohol by volume, so 82% should be enough to put us under the table nicely enough.

Neutral alcohol? Oh, hell, you don’t want to know. Or maybe you do but I don’t. It’s stuff you put in gin. What’s more interesting is that the concentrate is flammable, and the local fire and rescue folks spayed it with fire retardants to keep it from going whoosh. 

I had a moment of thinking I was living in a land flowing not with milk and honey but with gin and fire retardant–or gin and fire retardant and drunken, fire-proof fish–but no. Not all of those 7,039 gallons leaked out. They managed to control the leak and pump the remainder into another tanker. 

The BBC reported that people sat in their cars for up to four hours while police, fire fighters, and local drunks worked to clear up the spill. 

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The head of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s social media team, Chloe Westley, defended someone or other against charges of misogyny by saying that young women have been “misled by feminists” into thinking they were being discriminated over pay. 

The full quote is, “Young women in Britain are being misled by feminists. Take the stories over the weekend based on ‘Equal Pay Day’. We’re told that there is a ‘gender pay gap’ between men and women, and that this is due to rampant discrimination. But this gap is simply a comparison of the average salaries of men and women: it’s not indicative of any kind of discrimination.” 

So why does this happen? Why, women’s choices, of course. Silly creatures that they are, they chose to have biological equipment that allows them to get pregnant, and a significant number of them use it. Then instead of putting the kids in a dresser drawer till they get home from work, they stay home to keep the little creatures alive. Or they pay startling amounts of money so someone else can keep them alive and go back to work, but when the kids get sick what do they do? They stay home with them. Why? That dresser drawer’s still available. 

No wonder they get paid less. If men carried on like that, I ask you, where would the human race be?

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Jacob Leeks-Mogg” took second place in a vegetable characters competition. It’s a spoof of Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons and now famous for lounging on the Commons benches during a Brexit debate, more or less as seen here. 

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“Jacob Leeks-Mogg.” Thanks to Deb Croxford for sending me a link to this deathless piece of art, which has either wilted or been eaten by now.

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Meanwhile, in the U.S., two scientists in New Jersey found a baby two-headed rattlesnake. Since both scientists are named Dave, they named the snake Double Dave and took it into protective custody. Two heads, it turns out, are not better than one. They make the snake slow, and since they both operate independently they sometimes fight over food, not understanding that it doesn’t matter who swallows the food, it goes into a shared digestive system.

There’s a moral in there somewhere, for all of us.

The snake wouldn’t be likely to survive in the wild.

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And since we’re dropping in on other countries, a cult theory holds that Bielefeld, Germany’s twentieth-largest city, doesn’t exist. Don’t ask me to explain how this started, but the joke’s been going for twenty-five years and the city is now running a contest, offering a million euros to anyone who can prove that it doesn’t exist. 

Bielefeld climate change activists are offering the same amount to anyone who can prove climate change isn’t happening.

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In France, a court ruled that a rooster named Maurice can keep crowing. A couple–retired farmers, ironically–had complained about Maurice, and the case has been working its way through the courts for two years, sparking a social media I am Maurice campaign.

Other complaints about rural noises have targeted frogs, cicadas, ducks, and geese. 

Humans are a difficult species.

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Before we leave, let’s go back to Britain for a feel-good story. Bradford was once home to a bustling Jewish community, but the 2011 census records only 299 residents who identify themselves as Jewish. (It’s hard to know what that means, since the question might have been about religion or it might have been about ethnicity. But never mind–that’s a side issue.) Bradford’s lone synagogue was down to 45 members and almost shut down in 2013, when the cost of fixing the roof outran the outran the money it could raise. (Forgive me for even bothering to say this, but some people still need to hear it: Whatever you’ve been told, not all Jews are rich. We cover the full economic spectrum. And, oddly enough, we don’t run the world.)

What happened next was that the Muslim community (129,041 in the 2011 census) stepped in and raised the money, which led to a lottery grant that covered other repairs.

The connection was made by a Muslim self-taught photographer, Nudrat Afza, a Pakistani immigrant who became friends with the synagogue’s 93-year-old chairman, Rudi Leavor, who came to Bradford as a refugee from Nazi Germany.

You can see a few of her photographs of the synagogue here and other photos here. She’s good. And she’s been made an honorary member of the synagogue.

And that story should echo out into a small and perfect silence. Hold it in your heart.

Brexit, with warring headlines

Wednesday brings us clashing online stories. In one, the European Union had made a concession to Boris Johnson, agreeing to give the Northern Irish parliament veto power every four years on the Irish border backstop arrangement–but only if both the Catholic and Protestant communities agree to it. 

In another, talks between the EU and the UK had come to a halt. 

Other stories quote government sources as saying a deal is now impossible. 

All of that may be true, contradictory as it sounds. The problem with the Irish border arrangement is that Protestant politicians would predictably vote to end an arrangement that keeps Northern Irish customs aligned with the EU. It wants to align itself with Britain. And Catholic politicians would equally predictably vote to keep it, aligning etc. with Ireland and the EU. You can’t please both sides in this. So the EU may have made an offer and it may not work. If there’s a way to please both sides in this, no one’s found it yet.

Parliament will have a special sitting on Saturday October 19 to decide what happens next, and the prime minister and the Rebel Alliance (yes, they’re really called that, although they only align on opposing a no-deal Brexit–after that it begins to crumble) will wrestle for control of the agenda.  

In another story, Johnson and his advisors are “reportedly” ready to tell the queen that she can’t fire him, even if he loses a no-confidence vote in parliament, “a plan,” the paper says “ridiculed by lawyers and historians.” 

There are new rumors of cabinet resignations in the face of a no-deal Brexit, and also over the power of Johnson’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, but as of twenty seconds ago no actual resignations. 

On Monday the political editor of the Spectator went public with a 700-word text message from a “contact in Number 10,” a.k.a. the prime minister’s office. That’s presumably Dominic Cummings, who–the papers point out–doesn’t seem to understand how the EU works. He–let’s assume it’s Cummings; it lets us choose a pronoun, and pronouns may be in short supply if we crash out of the EU, so I don’t want to waste them–. 

Where were we? He–we got that far–threatens that any EU country that votes for an extension will go to the “back of the queue” both “within and outside EU competences.” Whatever that means. 

As threats go, this is riddled with problems. An extension has to be approved unanimously by the EU member states, otherwise there’s no extension. That means there will be no isolated member states to pick off. The UK would have to take on the entire EU. That’s is sort of like me wrestling the Incredible Hulk. Which I’d do, mind you. I’m a younger sister. I learned how to lose a fight with style. 

Next problem: that business of queues. Not all countries go meekly to the back of the queue when you tell them to. A queue is a line, for those of you who aren’t British. They’re deep at the heart of British culture. In fact, I lean toward thinking they’re the national religion. But not all countries believe in them. Some sharpen their elbows and push themselves up where they want to be. And since in addition to being a younger sister, I’m a native-born New Yorker, I say that without any disapproval. That’s just how it is, boychick–or whoever wrote the memo. Some of us know how to push and you don’t get to make the rules.

The memo also had a blanked-out threat having to do with security and defence. But those go through NATO, not the EU. And if a threat’s real, Britain might want the aid of larger neighbors. There may still be such a thing as the national interest.

The memo suggests that, contrary to half of what the government’s been saying, it will have to ask the EU for an extension beyond the end of the month. 

Why only half of what it says? In court, where it was hauled by a Scottish lawsuit (on hold until the political process plays out) and will now be hauled by a parallel English one (not yet heard), the government says it has every intention of complying with the law that says it has to ask for an extension. But outside of court, it still says Britain will be leaving on the 31st. 

Who should be believe? I’m reminded of a story about a man whose wife found him in bed with another woman. 

“Who’re you gonna believe,” he bellowed accusingly at her, “me or your own lyin’ eyes?”

I don’t know who to believe. My own lyin’ eyes are starting to spin in my head.

EU officials are increasingly convinced the Johnson’s proposal was written so that the EU would reject it and he could point the finger at them and say it’s all their fault that we couldn’t get a deal. 

Finally, the memo says Britain will be a disruptive EU member, but the first chance it will have to stick a spoke into the EU wheels will be in June, when it can veto the budget if it wants. Between now and then lies, almost inevitably, an election in Britain. I’m not making any predictions of how that’ll go in. But it doesn’t strike me as wise for anyone to be sure they’ll be in power then.

Anyone. 

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And just so Americans don’t feel left out of something to laugh and cry over, Trump, in announcing that he’s pulling troops out of northern Syria, leaving the Kurds to the gentle touch of the Turkish army, tweeted, “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”

If I’d made that up, I’d delete it as being too ridiculous to go into print. Don’t reduce people to cartoon characters, I’d tell myself. Leave them some depth. Have a bit of subtlety.

That’s where reality will outdo me every time.

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I’ve had to post this in a hurry. Hope it hangs together. If not, my apologies.

The Brexit update, with shampoo

We’ll get to the shampoo, but first let’s wade through enough bullshit to get our hair nicely dirty. To wit:

The British government told a Scottish court that it would ask the European Union for a Brexit delay if it can’t reach deal by October 19. 

Why is that bullshit and why do they feel the need to talk to a court it? Because a group of Remain activists filed a lawsuit to require the government to follow the Benn Act, which says the government has to ask for the extension. The Remainers didn’t go to court because the winter nights are long in Scotland. It’s still fall–or Autumn, as they like to say in Britain–and even that far north they have enough daylight left to keep them from going to court for the sake of entertainment. No, they went because Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than stay in the EU after October 31. And he’s still saying more or less the same thing. (#deadinaditch is trending on Twitter in case you really are bored.)

How can he ask for an extension and still leave on October 31? 

Well, a government statement says, “The government will comply with the Benn Act, which only imposes a very specific narrow duty concerning Parliament’s letter requesting a delay–drafted by an unknown subset of MPs and pro-EU campaigners–and which can be interpreted in different ways.

“But the government is not prevented by the Act from doing other things that cause no delay, including other communications, private and public.

“People will have to wait to see how this is reconciled. The government is making its true position on delay known privately in Europe and this will become public soon.”

What does that means? The government seems to think it has a get-out-of-jail-free card up its sleeve. Or a get-out-of-extension card–one that will let them follow the letter of the Benn Act but avoid the substance of it.

To underline that interpretation, a Brexiteer MP, Steve Baker, said “All this means is that government will obey the law. It does not mean we will extend. It does not mean we will stay in the EU beyond 31 October. We will leave.”

On Twitter, someone who may or may not know anything is speculating that they’re counting on Hungary to veto an extension. Does that make any sense. Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t usually look to Twitter for political punditry, but I was looking at the general wise-acreness at #deadinaditch.

In the meantime, the court’s being asked if Johnson can be jailed if he doesn’t comply with the law. 

Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

Just before all that kicked off, Johnson sent a proposed withdrawal deal to the European Union. We’re going to skip the details of how it was supposed to work, because the EU said it was unworkable, making the details pretty much irrelevant. In diplomatic language, they were “unconvinced” by it. In less diplomatic language, it wasn’t “even remotely workable.”

Every Brexit plan that’s drawn breath seems to have been cursed, which might tell us something about the practicality of leaving the EU. Theresa May–Johnson’s ill-fated predecessor–negotiated an agreement that the EU accepted but that couldn’t find a majority in the House of Commons. The odds of Johnson getting EU agreement to this one are roughly equal to my chances of winning the London marathon, but if he did, it just might get a majority in parliament. 

Emphasis on might

But without EU agreement, there’s no deal to bring to the Commons, so it doesn’t matter which way MPs would vote.

The main focus of any proposal these days is how to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Not because that’s the only issue that matters but because it might make the difference between a majority in the Commons and no majority. Everything else, important as it is, is being ignored.

Having said that, the border does matter. Opening it was a key part of ending the Troubles–the violence in Northern Ireland that ended with the Good Friday Agreement. The last watchpost on the Irish border was dismantled in 2006. The border’s been invisible since then, and the two economies have grown into each other and separating them–if it happens–will be painful. 

But an open border depends on the countries on both sides trading under the same regulations, otherwise you get stuff that meets lower standards slipping into the area where higher standards are in force. In other words, you get smuggling. Or your higher standards become meaningless. Or both. To date, no one’s figured out a politically viable way to get around that.

The director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the Johnson plan was unworkable and unpalatable and that Johnson hadn’t listened to businesses. And Northern Ireland’s chief constable has said his force wouldn’t staff any form of border security. 

Where the plan has gained support is from the Democartic Unionist Party–the DUP, a small party that first May and now Johnson have courted because they’ve needed their votes.

The plan would have the Northern Ireland Assembly (generally called Stormont, since that’s where it meets) voting on whether to renew the border arrangement every four years. The first problem here is that Stormont hasn’t met since 2017. Like everything else involved in Brexit, that’s a complicated and interesting story, and we’re not going into it. Follow the link if you want to know more.

The next problem is that the Irish government and Sinn Fein have said the proposal would give the DUP veto power over whether to renew the agreement. To make sense of that, you need to know the structure of the Stormont assembly. In a country deeply split between Protestants and Catholics, it seemed to make sense to set up a mechanism that allowed a relatively small number of delegates to say that a bill is sensitive enough to need a two-thirds majority if it’s to pass. In a perfect world, this would keep either side from bulldozing the other.

You probably haven’t noticed this, but this is not a perfect world. For Johnson’s plan, it means that either of the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, could block a renewal or the border arrangement. Since Sinn Fein wouldn’t (it would mean aligning Northern Ireland more heavily with Britain and breaking its integration with Ireland), that leaves the DUP alone with veto power. 

The DUP has used the two-thirds rule to block same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. I don’t know what Sinn Fein has used it for. 

The DUP and Sinn Fein have the same number of delegates in the assembly. They’re ringed by eight smaller parties that float around them like the dust of broken moons. Nobody has a two-thirds majority.

Or–well, move that into the past tense, since the assembly’s stopped meeting.

The EU has called on the British government to publish the complete text of its plan, because the Irish prime minister says Johnson has misled parliament over the impact it would have. So far, the government has published a no more than a summary. 

The EU gave Britain a week to come up with new solutions to the problems it says are inherent in the current plan. 

And now, at last, the shampoo: Johnson had planned a quick tour of Europe to hold meetings with assorted Important People, but everyone who matters told him they’ll be washing their hair and won’t have time to meet with him. So there are scheduling problems. 

Is anything else happening? Well, yes. It’s gotten lost in the mayhem, but it looks like Johnson will try–again–to suspend parliament on Tuesday. To prepare for the queen’s speech. Which is what he said last time. It’ll be interesting to see if Madge (as our neighbor likes to call her majesty) is as agreeable as she was last time he asked. If he doesn’t get her agreement, he can’t suspend parliament. Since she asked for advice about sacking a prime minister the last time he asked her for a suspension, a person could reasonably get the impression that she’s not happy with the current one.

Madge, here’s how it works: You take him to the returns desk and explain that he doesn’t fit. Or he shrank in the wash. Or the color turns out not to match the rug. They’ll ask if you’d like to exchange him or if you want your money back. They’ll be nice about it. You’re the queen. They don’t usually see queens at the returns desk. Of course they’ll be nice.

If, on the other hand, you ordered him online, you’ll need the box he came in. If he doesn’t fit, just bundle it around him as best you can.

Anything else happening? Of course. It never ends. The Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru–not a small fringe group but the party that came second the most recent election–just held its conference and is calling for a referendum on independence, holding out the prospect of joining the EU. Its leader, Adam Price, said, “The UK as we know it could cease to exist in a short few years.” 

He has also called on the UK to pay reparations for–I’m paraphrasing or I’ll be up all night typing–looting Welsh resources.

Meanwhile, Guy Verhofstadt, the coordinator of the EU parliament’s Brexit steering group, somehow got his mitts on a leaked script given to a Conservative MP by his or her party. The Guardian wrote that it “instructed them to attack the EU as ‘crazy’ if it rejected [Johnson’s] proposals.” 

He went public with it. 

Who could resist?

And finally, Johnson’s announced that he’s scrapping Theresa May’s commitment to keep EU rules on the environment, working rights, and safety standards. It’ll make it easier to negotiate a deal with the US.

That’s all we’ve got as of Friday night. I’m going to bed before anything else can happen. If I’m asleep, it didn’t happen.

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Update: Saturday morning’s paper (that’s Oct. 5) reports that Johnson says there’ll be no delay to Brexit. Government lawyers say he’ll follow the law and ask for an extension. Online stories say the law “only imposes narrow [duties]…which can be interpreted in different ways.” He may be negotiating with Hungary to get it to veto an extension.

What happens next? Good question.

The Brexit update, with queens and cash and prime ministerial groping

Okay, the title included a bit of clickbait. We’ve only got one queen involved. And the cash? It was a grant, not folding money. Sorry. I’ve gone sleazy and commercial.

Before Britain’s supreme court ruled that it was illegal for the prime minister to shut down of parliament, the lone queen in question asked for advice on whether and in what circumstances she could fire a prime minister. That may not sound like much, but this is Britain. The queen’s supposed to be above politics. She gets to to wave vaguely at the masses as she wafts from ceremonial occasion to ceremonial occasion. She allows prime ministers to fawn on her and then does what they tell her to.

Sorry–advise her to do.

But.

According to the i, “It is a quirk of the British constitution that the Queen retains a number of personal discretionary powers which include the right to appoint the prime minister and other ministers. A House of Commons select committee established in 2003 that these powers also include a right for the sovereign in a ‘grave constitutional crisis’ to act contrary to, or even without, ministerial advice.”

Tuck that possibility away at the back of your head and wait to see where it leads us.

And now a brief interruption while I offer a bit of unsolicited advice: If you’re starting a newspaper, don’t name it the i. You’ll end up with reporters writing phrases like “i understands” and “i has now been told.”

You has been warned.

What else is happening? Parliament’s back in session and members of parliament are being threatened with murder and rape. The MPs who get the most threats are women, especially if they’re black or from some other minority group, and especially if they speak out much, although black and other minority group men get them too. In 2016, an MP, Jo Cox, was both shot and stabbed by a man who considered her a traitor to white people, and her death hangs over parliament–or at least over the MPs who are being threatened. I can imagine that some who aren’t targets think the ones who’re complaining are just being emotional.

You know what women are like.

One MP said the threats she receives echo Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit rhetoric about surrender and betrayal. When challenged about ramping up tension, Johnson said the best way to honor Jo Cox was to get Brexit done. 

Cox was a remainer, making it a Trumpian moment. It doesn’t matter what you say as long as you say it with confidence.

In the meantime, Johnson has been telling the world at large on the one hand that he’ll obey the law and on the other that the country will leave the EU by the end of the month. Since the law he’d been asked about says he has to ask for a Brexit extension by October 19 if he doesn’t have a deal with the European Union, and since getting a deal’s about as likely as him standing up to sing Faustus (and singing it well, mind you) in the House of Commons, you might wonder how he thinks he can manage both. 

The answer, according to some observers, is likely to be the Civil Contingencies Act, which New Labour passed in 2004. It gives the prime minister special powers in a national emergency. 

What’s a national emergency? Well, children, it’s a situation that threatens “serious damage to human welfare” or the environment in the UK. That includes war or terrorism that threatens “serious damage to the security of the United Kingdom.” The threats could include disruption to transportation or to the supply of food, money, energy, or health services.

Are any of those threats on the horizon? There are suggestions that Brexit could cause some of them, but pre-Brexit I don’t see them happening. Still, a feller can always hope, and I expect Johnson is hoping.

What kind of powers are we talking about? Power to create emergency regulations that “may make any provision which the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate for the purpose of preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency in respect of which the regulations are made.” 

The act has more detail and some restrictions, but we’re civilians here. That’s close enough. Or if it isn’t, you can follow the link and read more.

The wording strikes me as broad and the limitations badly defined–especially that business about what the person making the regulations is satisfied is appropriate. If I happen to be prime minister (I’ll sing Faustus if I ever am, although I don’t promise to sing it well) and if I’m out of touch with everyday reality (which I’ll prove by singing etc.), what I’m satisfied is appropriate isn’t going to be much of a guide to responsible action. 

What I’m satisfied about also can’t be demonstrated. Haul me into court for dropping bombs on rival parties’ conferences and I can shrug my shoulders and say I was satisfied it was appropriate. No one else was inside my head, so who can prove otherwise?

MP Dominic Grieve, a former Conservative and a former attorney general, said it would be a “constitutional outrage” to use the act in the current situation.  But assorted cabinet ministers have warned, with a gleam of hope in their eyes, that Britain can expect civil disorder along the lines of the French gilets jaunes protests if the country doesn’t deliver Brexit by the end of October. 

Opposition figures have accused them of trying to whip up exactly what they’re warning against. 

While all that’s been going on, Parliament refused to take a break for the Conservative Party conference. That sounds spiteful, and it is, but as the Scottish National Party pointed out, parliament’s never taken a break for their convention, only for the ones held by the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. So okay, fair enough. If you piss off enough MPs, they’re going to take their revenge any way they can.

That didn’t stop the Conservatives from holding a conference, it just left the major players shuttling awkwardly between the conference and parliament.

Outside the crumbling halls of parliament (and that’s not a metaphor; the building’s falling apart), a scandal from Johnson’s days as mayor of London has crawled out of the archives. An American businesswoman, Jennifer Arcuri, received thousands of pounds from a government agency that Johnson controlled, and he made sure she went on trade missions with him that other participants say she was clueless about. In giving Arcuri’s company a grant, the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport waived a rule that no grant could be for more than half of the company’s revenue. 

It’s also supposed to give grants only to companies based in the U.K., but although her company has a U.K. address it has a California telephone number, calling into question where it’s based. Reporters showing up at the address were told it had only just moved there.

Arcuri told friends (who apparently told the press, as friends will, but only if they’re true friends) that she and Johnson were having an affair. 

Johnson could have declared an interest when the grant was considered, taken himself out of the voting, and come out of this squeaky clean, but he didn’t. And so he isn’t and the whole thing’s been referred to the police.

Arcuri lent her company £700,000 just before it won a £100,000 government grant and it’s not clear where the money came from. The company had almost no income and her other companies are either in the red or have been dissolved. And she’s being sued in the U.S. for an unpaid student loan. 

Johnson’s financial backers are also hitting the headlines. His sister said, “He is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit–and there is only one option that works for them: a crash-out no-deal that sends the currency tumbling and inflation soaring.” 

So there’ve been calls to investigate that as a conflict of interest.

Not enough scandal for you? Have no fear, we have one more lurking at the bottom of the bag. A journalist, Charlotte Edwardes, has accused Johnson of groping her under the table at a lunch when he edited the Spectator. Afterwards, she told the woman (we don’t know who that was–yet) sitting on Johnson’s other side what had happened and the second woman said he’d done the same to her. 

Johnson denied doing any such thing. 

Tune in next week (or tomorrow; or the day after; I have no idea when enough insanity will pile up to justify another post) for the next exciting installment of Brexit Britain.

The Brexit update: a country on hold

Britain’s on hold at the moment (“History-in-the-making is experiencing a high volume of calls right now…”), waiting to talk to someone who can resolve our Brexit problems. Whatever music we least want to hear is drilling its way down our ear canals and into our brains. That’s because parliament was sent home to sit on many scattered naughty steps so that our prime minister, Boris Johnson, can pursue Brexit without being bothered by the country’s primary governing body.

One of the things we’re waiting for is expected in a few days at most: The supreme court (no capital letters, apparently) is considering whether Johnson had the right to send parliament home without dessert. (Yes, I know I’ve changed images and it was the naughty step in the last paragraph. Indulge me. I just sat with friends talking about Brexit and feeling miserable, so I’m going to haul out every half-assed joke I’ve been schlepping around in my backpack, all at once. I doubt they’ll make me feel better but my backpack will at least be lighter.) 

Experts in reading legal tea leaves expect the court to rule against Johnson, setting off a “constitutional eruption of volcanic proportions” according to an unnamed senior legal figure. 

Johnson said he’d abide by the ruling, which is nice of him, given that it’ll come from his country’s highest court, but government figures have been strewing suggestions that he might abide by it and then send parliament home all over again but for a different reason. And stick his tongue out at them as they’re leaving.

If the tea-leaf experts are right and the court does rule against Johnson, what will matter is what grounds they base their ruling on. If they say he misled the queen, at least one expert says he’s had it. 

Why? Because you can shut down your country’s legislative body, you can lie to the public, you can encourage bitter division among your people and bring your country to the brink of what many people think will be disaster, but you cannot get caught lying to the queen. Because she’s the queen.

Don’t expect me to explain this to you. I spent most of my life in the US. I’ll never really understand this queen business.

What’s Johnson doing while sit on hold and listen to music we hate?

He’s told us that, in the great game of Brexit, he holds a card that will allow the backstop* to be replaced with something better, newer, bigger, and, um, better. Now the  European Union has called its bluff and asked to see the card. 

In the meantime–or possibly in response; we can’t know because it’s secret–Britain has proposed something that we don’t know the contents of because the proposals are marked secret. Britain doesn’t even want them distributed to the Brexit representatives of the EU’s member states. They’re marked “Her Majesty’s government property.” 

So are the capital letters in that quote, so don’t mess with them. Her Majesty’s government doesn’t have a sense of humor about capital letters. I’m pushing my luck leaving the U out of humor.

How are the EU member states supposed to evaluate them if they can’t read them? 

That’s their problem.

This news came after the EU handed Johnson a two-week deadline to show its backstop card and the UK said it couldn’t meet an artificial deadline, it would need a year.

Britain’s supposed to leave the EU on October 31, though. What’s supposed to happen on the border between then and when the backstop card is turned face up? 

I have no idea. 

To show that he’s serious about the negotiations, Johnson compared himself to the Incredible Hulk, and demonstrators have been appearing in costume holding “incredible sulk” signs. Headline writers rubbed their hands in glee.   

In the midst of all this, Johnson ducked out of a scheduled press conference in Luxembourg, where he’d planned on telling everyone how well the negotiations were going. That left Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, standing at one lectern and gesturing at the empty one, saying the EU needed “more than just words.” 

The supreme court will hand down its ruling soon. Lawyers on both sides will be combing through every comma and semicolon. In the meantime, your call is important to us. We will be with you as soon as inhumanly possible.

 

* The backstop: Entirely too briefly, this is part of the treaty negotiated by our former prime minister, Theresa May, and rejected by her supporters and her opponents and even the extra-terrestrials circling the Earth invisibly and shaking their heads over the general incompetence of the human race. The idea of the backstop was to keep Brexit from creating a hard border, with border checks and so forth, between Ireland and Northern Ireland, for fear of restarting the Troubles between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. I’ll spare you the explanation of why it’s a hot button issue, but it is.

The Brexit update, with gorilla suits

We’ll get to the gorilla suits toward the end. In the meantime, with all the usual apologies (it’s important to know what’s going on; I didn’t start it; it has a lot of redeeming absurdity), here’s the Brexit update.

Parliament ordered Boris Johnson to send the European Union a letter asking to delay Brexit, and now he’s being warned that if he adds a covering note saying, “P.S., We don’t really want an extension, so please ignore the enclosed letter,” he will be breaking the law. The warning comes from an assortment of senior judges and lawyers.

That hasn’t gone to court yet. The warnings are in response to leaks saying the prime minister’s looking for a way around the law Parliament passed.

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, issued a warning of his own. He told Johnson there’s no such thing as a clean break from the EU. Even if Britain huffs out without an agreement, all the unresolved issues will still need to be negotiated. On his list were citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and a financial settlement with Europe. And fishing rights. And tariffs. And product standards. And and and and.

In other leaks, documents planning the prorogation of parliament–

Let me stop to explain this in the most objective terms for anyone who’s new here: Prorogation means locking Parliament in a broom closet while the prime minister pursues Brexit unencumbered by the democratic process.

Or two broom closets, since you couldn’t ask the Lords to share a broom closet with the Commons. They need a higher class of broom closet, with better champagne.

Actually, they all get sent home.

Where were we? Parliament ordered Johnson and his friends and advisers to hand over the documents they exchanged while they were planning the prorogation. They (that’s Parliament, not Johnson & Co.) managed that just before getting locked ceremoniously in their broom closets. The reason this matters is that the government claimed it the prorogation wasn’t political, it was just business as usual. Initial leaks indicate that it was anything but–and that the documents will prove that.

Since Johnson had to ask the queen’s permission to prorogue Parliament, the current flap is over whether he lied to the queen in order to get her to wave her magic feather over it.

The government is swearing it won’t release the documents, and that could put it in contempt of Parliament.

Does it matter if it is? An MP who’s held in contempt can be booted out of Parliament–and any prime minister is also an MP. If the prime minster isn’t an MP, is he or she still prime minister? Probably not. That’s awkward, and from a prime minister’s point of view, not desirable.

An MP who’s held in comtempt can also be confined to the Westminster clock tower, but the last time that was done was in 1880. Non-MPs can be imprisoned (not in the clock tower as far as I can figure out–that’s for a better class of contemptuees) for the duration of the Parliament, which these days can be for as long as five years.

Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings has been held in contempt and not only isn’t in jail, he was given a security clearance. I won’t try to explain that.

In 2018, Theresa May’s government was held to be in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release some Brexit legal advice it had been given. That was the first time in British history a government was held in contempt of parliament. May backed down and was not banished to the clock tower.

That business about the clock tower is real. I say that because it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. As a rough guideline, if I tell you that all government advisers have to dress in gorilla suits, that’s a joke. If I tell you that a politician can be imprisoned in (or under) the clock tower, that’s real.

Really.

I hope that helps.

In other leaked documents, the government has ordered a top priority centralization of user information from the government’s public information websites. This is supposed to help with Brexit preparations.

How will it help? No one seems sure, but although the government swears that no personal details will be collected, privacy campaigners, opposition politicians, and policy experts are uneasy about what’s being done and why, not to about mention the secrecy surrounding it. Especially because Cumming–that’s Johnson’s adviser, you may or may not remember, and he does not wear a gorilla suit–is the driving force behind this and was (not at all incidentally) the driving force behind the Vote Leave campaign’s complicated and partially illegal use of personal data.

Also not incidentally, £100,000 million has been budgeted for a campaign to direct people to the government’s Brexit preparation website–more money than some experts say can actually be spent. I don’t like conspiracy theories, but when I connect the dots I can’t help constructing one. And believing it.

In an earlier update I mentioned that three lawsuits had been filed against the prorogation of parliament. In England, the court said it wasn’t a subject a court could rule on. In Scotland (on appeal), it’s been ruled illegal. Both rulings were unanimous. Northern Ireland hasn’t ruled yet and the case was launched on different grounds.

Why the different rulings? Because the UK has three separate legal systems, which can allow courts to rule differently even when they consider the same facts, and even if you rule out the possibility of conscious or unconscious political bias. All three systems have equal weight. Britain’s highest court, the Supreme Court, has scheduled a three-day hearing starting on September 17. I have no idea which of the three systems they’re supposed to base their ruling on, or if they’re supposed to follow all of them simultaneously.

I wasn’t going to get into the maneuvering surrounding John Bercow, the speaker of the Commons, but I just have to. Following tradition, when he became the speaker he gave up his party affiliation, but before he did, he was a Conservative. Recently, he’s allowed the anti-no-deal coalition–now (really) known as the Rebel Alliance–to act effectively against the government. Whether that involved bending the rules or following them depends on what side of the divide you’re on, but the current government just hates the man.

Traditionally, when MPs are up for re-election no party runs a candidate against the speaker, but the Conservatives–they’re the current government, and I mention that in case you’ve been locked in the clock tower for a few months and have lost track of anything but those damn bells every fifteen minutes–have announced that they will run a candidate against him, which leaves him vulnerable since he won’t have party machinery to back him.

In response, Bercow’s announced that he’ll step down as speaker, but he’ll time it so that the current parliament, with its anti-government majority, will get to elect the next speaker.

If all that isn’t enough, a series of unleaked but reluctantly released documents detail what the government estimates are “reasonable worst-case assumptions” in case of a no-deal Brexit, although another version of the document apparently calls it a “base scenario.” (No-deal Brexit preparations, by the way, are called Operation Yellowhammer, because, hey, that sounds all military and cool.) Predictions include higher food prices, shortages of medicines, and riots on the streets.

The poorest people will be hit hardest. Some businesses will go broke (or “cease trading” to put it more blandly), including providers of adult social care. The black market will grow. Disruptions could go on for as long as six months.

Still, it’s nothing to worry about and revised estimates are due out any day now, as soon as the government can be strong-arm them out of the appropriate civil servants.

The paper also predicts smuggling across the Northern Ireland border and says the plans to impose checks there (it’s been an open border, but that depends on both Ireland and Northern Ireland being in the EU) would quickly become unworkable. We can also expect clashes at sea over fishing rights and the disruption of cross-border financial services.

For food sales to the EU to keep going, vets will have to sign 1.9 million food standard certificates, although it’s not clear from what I’ve read how quickly they’ll have to do that or how long they’ll last once they’re signed. Do they sign them every year? Every day? Every waking moment? For every shipment?

Meanwhile, Senior civil servants can expect to be caught between MPs’ demands and the government’s. Their union has written to the prime minister demanding an assurance that staff won’t be asked to break either the law or the civil service code.

We’re deep into uncharted waters, and you can’t make this stuff up. All you can do is add the occasional gorilla suit.

Another update from Brexit Britain

Okay, pay attention, because we’re talking about Brexit again, so it isn’t likely to make sense. In the interests of making this marginally easier to follow, I’ve left a few events out of sequence where the sequence isn’t what matters. 

Let’s start with the House of Commons passing a bill to block a no-deal Brexit. During the debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, was photographed lounging, odalisque-like, on the Commons’ benches and the picture went viral. He’s been photoshopped into everything from a couch surrounded by the Simpsons to a high jump to a graph of the shrinking number of MPs left in his party, the Conservatives. You can find a handful of them here, and they’re worth a look.

From there, let’s check in with the MPs the prime minister, Boris Johnson, threw out of the Conservative Party. They had to go looking for new seats in the House of Commons. The seats are–well, it’s sort of like the lunch room in whatever your worst year in school was. One bunch of kids sits over here and another bunch kids colonizes that table over there, and if you’re not part of either group you can’t sit with them, you have to search out a corner and try to look like you’re happy there and hope no one tells you it’s their spot and you have to get out. So a group of rebels stayed on the Conservative benches even though they’d been tossed out of the party and even though they’d been told that no one wanted to have lunch with them ever again. 

This is, apparently, a big deal. Just like it was in school.

Then Boris Johnson’s brother, Jo, announced that he was quitting the cabinet, saying he had to put the national interest above family loyalty. Not long after that, Boris Johnson said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than ask the European Union for an extension, raising the question of whether he’d defy the law parliament had passed.

Then a cop fainted in Yorkshire. What’s that got to do with anything? Johnson was supposed to be making a short, non-political speech about police and money and recruitment, and he had two rows of stoic-looking police trainees lined up behind him. They’d already been waiting in the sun for an hour before the speech started because it–or possibly he–was late. 

Once he got going, he made a long rambling (and in some accounts incoherent) speech about Brexit and being dead in a ditch and the election he hasn’t been able to call but wants to, and a cop collapsed. Which is usually a speaker’s cue to end the speech, and he acknowledged that but kept going for a while anyway.  

The chief constable of the area said he was disappointed that Johnson used his officers as a backdrop to a topic other than the one he’d agreed to. 

Johnson might be smart to watch the speed limit next time he drives through Yorkshire.

The bill the Commons passed went to the House of Lords, where the people who’d been expected to stall it didn’t bother. From there, it should go to the queen for her signature, at which point it will be law.

But it’s not exactly the law everyone expected because while it was still in the Commons an MP proposed an amendment that would bring back the deal Theresa May negotiated–a deal so unpopular that both pro- and anti-Brexit MPs voted against it–and it passed without being voted on because no one from the Conservatives volunteered to count the no votes. That may have been an accident or it may have been a deep and nefarious government plot. If it was, it was deep indeed, because the amendment was introduced by a Labour MP–that’s the opposition–not by anyone backing the government.

What’s more likely is that this is a bit of procedure so arcane that no one remembered it and it was able to ambush them.

The amendment could have been stripped out in the House of Lords but wasn’t, so a deal that no one liked has wandered back into public life like a three-year-old who woke up in the middle of a party and is wandering around sleepy-eyed and wondering why everyone’s acting funny.

Will Johnson defy the new law? At one point he said he would–he’d refuse to accept any delay and Britain would leave the EU by Halloween, dressed as a gorilla and over-hyped on sugar. Then his foreign minister said the government would follow the law but challenge it in the courts. And his chancellor said the government will “absolutely not” ask for an extension. 

Do the three of them know each other? You’d think so. They all sit in on cabinet meetings. Do they talk to each other? Probably. Do they listen? I’m guessing the answer’s no.

MPs who backed the bill are consulting lawyers about how to enforce it. Shops renting gorilla suits are consulting their calendars. I’m consulting my couch, because this stuff makes me dizzy and, excuse me, I have to sit down.

A prime minister going to prison for defying a law isn’t impossible. Whether he’d still be a prime minister at that point–. You guess is as good as mine.

Meanwhile, the High Court ruled that Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament is constitutional. 

Proroguing? That’s when the prime minister sends Parliament home without any dessert. It’s usually done before an election and isn’t a political move. In this case, it was an attempt to keep the anti-no-deal bill from passing but it didn’t work. Parliament had just enough time and they didn’t like that mess they were serving for dessert anyway.

How anyone figures out what’s constitutional when you have an unwritten constitution is beyond me, but never mind. I’m not on the court so no one needs my opinion. And the High Court’s opinion doesn’t necessarily mean more than mine, because the High Court isn’t the highest court. The issue will go to the Supreme Court.

At several points in this sequence, we learned that Johnson has a problem with girls. I’m not talking about anything legally questionable, he just doesn’t seem to think much of them. He’s called former prime minister David Cameron (who’s from his own party) a “girly swot” and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn a “big girl’s blouse.” Apparently if you attach girl to anything, it becomes an insult. 

As one commentator said–sorry, I have no idea who; I’m quoting second hand–it’s like “being governed by a nine-year-old.” He might’ve mentioned that he had a nine-year-old boy in mind but he didn’t. In his mind, all nine-year-olds are probably are boys.

What can I tell you about those last two paragraphs that you don’t already know? Not much, I suspect. We’ll move on.

After the prime minister’s brother resigned, another cabinet member, Amber Rudd, stepped down, calling Johnson’s approach to Brexit “political vandalism.” The government, she said, wasn’t holding negotiations with the EU, although it claims to be, and 80% to 90% of its energy is going into preparing for a no-deal Brexit although it says it wants a new, better, shinier deal than Theresa May’s deal.

Meanwhile, back at the pub, the Wetherspoons chain has promised cut-price drinks if the UK leaves the EU. Brexit, they say, will be good for drinkers. To demonstrate, they cut all of 20 p off a drink. I’d love to tell you how much that would leave you paying, but short of marching in and ordering a pint (the closest Wetherspoons I know of is an hour away and anyway, I don’t drink) I don’t know a way find out. Their online menu is no help. Basically, though, this isn’t free booze we’re talking about and it’s not a life-changing discount. If you wonder how much 20 p is worth, you can buy four plastic bags with it, or a tin of mushy peas (you’ll get 1 p in change). 

There’s talk of the government trying to push the EU into expelling it by refusing to nominate a new British commissioner, but the EU says it’s happy to function without one. 

What next? Well, “A Downing Street source said: ‘We intend to sabotage any extension. The “surrender bill” only kicks in if an extension is offered. Once people realise our plans, there is a good chance we won’t be offered a delay. Even if we are, we intend to sabotage that too.’ ”

The “surrender bill” is what the government calls the bill blocking a no-deal Brexit, although, as Corbyn pointed out, Britain isn’t at war with the EU. 

A former Supreme Court judge said there’s no shortage of ways the law can be enforced. “An application will have to be made to the court for an injunction. The simplest way of enforcing the injunction would be for the court simply to direct an official to sign the letter on behalf of the PM and to declare that his signature was to be treated in every legal respect as equivalent to the prime minister’s.”

In the meantime, France is threatening to block a British request for an extension to the period before it has to leave the EU. They’ve threatened that before, though, and no one seems to be taking them seriously.

Think it’s crazy over here? It’s only going to get wilder.

In the meantime, if you’re tired of Brexit updates, I apologize. I think I speak for a large part of the country when I say that we are too. Unfortunately, they matter. Regular service will continue on Fridays. Just check in then and ignore everything else.

News from Britain: brawls, bugs, and Brexit

A brawl broke out on a cruise ship when–well, that’s where it gets murky and we haven’t even finished the first sentence. Let’s start with what we do know. Or think we know:

The fight happened so early in the morning that it was still late at night, in the ship’s restaurant (or buffet, as most of the articles put it), after a day of “patriotic partying,” whatever the hell that is, and an evening black-tie event. By this time, everyone involved was probably well lubricated. What the papers establish is that a lot of alcohol had been transferred from the bottles into the passengers but they don’t say which individual passengers it was transferred into. 

The people involved in the fight used plates and furniture as weapons. Passengers who weren’t involved described the fight as being between family groups. Is this what U.S. anti-gay campaigners have in mind when they talk about “family values”? I was never clear on whose family they were thinking of.

Six people were injured and reports say blood was everywhere. 

How much blood? How big an area is everywhere? What values did the families have? Dunno, duuno, and dunno.

Irrelevant photo: North Cornwall cliffs.

It all started, according to a witness, when a passenger became upset that another passenger was wearing a clown suit. He’d specifically booked a cruise with no fancy dress events. 

A fancy dress party is British for a costume party, and they’re endemic in Britain. The whole thing about dressing up says something profound about the British culture, or its psyche, or its something, although I’m damned if I know what. I’d welcome explanations, however far fetched.

If the story sounds strange, it gets stranger: The cruise line, P&O, swears that there was no clown on board and no one was wearing fancy dress. 

The people who were suspected of being behind the incident were confined to a cabin for the last day of the cruise.

With no dessert.

Two people have been arrested, a man and a woman. They’ve also been released but when they were last in the news they were still under investigation.

In the meantime, no one seems to be investigating this whole business about the clown, which borders on criminal irresponsibility.

*

Since we’re talking about transportation, a horse wandered onto an unstaffed train station at Tyne and Wear, which has something to do with Newcastle, but we don’t really need to know that. What mattered is that the horse wandered in and passenger helped it wander out, leading it to a nearby field that everyone agreed–possibly based on evidence and possibly based on convenience–was exactly the field it had come from.

The company that runs the trains issued a statement saying almost nothing, but it did mention that trains had been warned about the incident. I’d like to think the trains’ drivers were also warned. The real message was that there’s nothing dangerous about leaving a station without staff and everyone could sleep safe in their beds and not have nightmares about horses. 

What can we learn from this? That trains in Britain have drivers while trains in the U.S. have engineers. They do the same job.

Also that horses get bored. And lonely.

*

Reports in August said that Britons had spent £4 billion stockpiling things in case Brexit brings shortages. One in five people had gathered up £380 worth of food, medicine, and–yes, of course–drinks, because if you’re going to face shortages you want to at least be able to get shitfaced. Some 800,000 people are sitting on a hoard worth £1,000 or more. Luxury car imports are up 16% compared to a year ago, so presumably the super-rich are stockpiling luxury cars in case the import taxes go up. Because hey, you’ve got to watch every penny when you’re buying luxury cars.

People are also stockpiling toilet paper, but I don’t know how much they’ve spent on it or how many days’ worth they consider safe. It does all tell us what people consider important.

*

A study published in the British Medical Journal reports that washing the dishes can help you live longer. Not because it’ll keep your partner from killing you (it may, but they don’t seem to have factored that in) but because light exercise–taking out the trash, crawling under the bed to locate that lost shoe–keeps you alive longer. Less conveniently for your partner, so will walk around the block. And tickling a nerve near your ear with a low-level electrical charge might as well.

Okay, full disclosure: That last study indicates it might improve your mood and help you sleep and age better. It didn’t actually say you’d live longer.

Optimism also helps you live longer–11% to 15% longer according to a recent study (sorry–I lost the link). On the other hand, a really good chocolate cake might do the same thing. I haven’t found any data to say it won’t.

I also haven’t looked for any.

*

Salford City Council has dropped a ban on public swearing in Salford Quays. It was imposed three years ago and never enforced, but if it had been and if you’d been at the wrong end of it, you could have been out as much as £1,000.

With a mouth like mine, it could have been an expensive place to visit. 

In 2017, Rochdale City Council banned skateboarding, swearing, and begging in the town center. Violators could be fined, again, up to £1,000–which makes perfect sense when you’re dealing with someone begging on the street. 

The swearing ban was dropped as unenforceable later in the year. The rest, as far as I can tell, is still in force. 

In 2015, Chester banned sleeping on the street, feeding birds, and unlicensed busking, which is British for making music in public and leaving your guitar case open for people to drop money into. When all hell broke loose (and protesters marched in their pajamas), the council backed off those parts of the ban but kept the ones on urinating in public, drinking in public, and using legal highs. (That’s not a typo. They were talking about the legal ones.)  

I’m not a big fan of public peeing, but it might be more effective to just make some toilets available. Although that costs money. Welcome to austerity Britain. If you need to pee, that’s your problem.  

All the bans were introduced as Public Spaces Protection Orders. 

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Protesters in France spent some time recently going into town halls, politely taking down the president’s portrait, and leaving with it. They’re pointing up President Macron’s inaction on climate change, despite his stance as a world leader on the issue. They recently held a march where they carried the portraits they’d taken–upside down. 

I wish I could explain why I find that so funny. I suspect it has something to do with how perfectly beside the point taking down the portraits is. 

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A new study of seagulls reports that going eyeball to eyeball with them when they’re trying to steal your chips (a.k.a. french fries) will make them back down. Of course, no sooner did someone send out a press release on the study than every TV station in the country sent a reporter to the nearest beach to interview whatever humans were available. One that I watched asked them to recreate the experiment, and it was a disaster, especially when the humans were faced with more gulls than they had eyeballs, or when the gulls swooped in from behind, where (inconveniently) humans lack eyeballs.

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The City of London (which is not to be confused with the city, small C, of London, of which the City, large C, is one small and expensive part) is tightening regulations on new skyscrapers. Existing ones have created winds that a cyclists’ organization says are strong enough to knock over pedestrians and push bike riders sideways, possibly into the paths of cars.

One building, called the Walkie-Talkie because of its shape, concentrated the sun’s rays strongly enough to melt parts of a car parked nearby. A reporter managed to fry an egg using only its heat. It’s since been retro-fitted with anti-pyromaniacal glazing and hasn’t set anything on fire for a while. We’re all hoping it’s found a better outlet for its impulses.

The new regulations will make the architects think all that through ahead of time. 

Don’t you just hate government red tape? 

London has developed a wonderful tradition of giving its skyscrapers names their that developers and architects didn’t plan on, and probably hate. The Walkie-Talkie is one. Others are the Cheesegrater, the Shard, the Gherkin, the Can of Ham, and the Scalpel.

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A New Zealand bug imported to the Isles of Scilly some hundred years ago has evolved to reproduce asexually. The population’s now entirely female and it’s doing just fine, thanks. 

The little beast is a stick insect called the Clitarchus hookeri, and it was an unplanned import, hitching a ride with some plants that were brought in for a subtropical garden. And no, in spite of it sounding like an academic April Fool’s Day joke, the little beast is real

Scientists brought some of the bugs back to New Zealand, where they were happy enough to mate with local males but went ahead and reproduced in the old fashioned way, which is to say, without male input. 

You can draw whatever morals you like from that.

The Isles of Scilly are off the coast of Cornwall and yes, they’re pronounced silly and are sometimes called the Scilly Isles. I’ve heard it often enough that I’ve lost the urge to giggle.

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And finally, a small ray of hope for the human race: Writer Olivia Laing, whose first novel, Crudo, won the £10,000 James Tait Black prize, announced that she was going to share the prize with her fellow finalists. 

“I said in Crudo that competition has no place in art and I meant it,” she said. 

She’s what in Yiddish is called a mensch–a person of real integrity. I’m off to a bookstore to take a browse through the book and if it grabs me, to buy a copy. The other finalists were Murmur (Will Eaves), Sight (Jessie Greengrass), and Heads of Colored People (Nafissa Thompson-Spires). I’ll have a browse through them too. I have a hunch that you wouldn’t end up regretting it if you doing the same.

The Brexit Update, 4 September 2019

By the time you read this, it’ll be out of date–British politics are moving at the speed of a slow-motion train wreck–but here’s what I can tell you as of 7 a.m., British summer time (which isn’t a season but the time Britain goes by in the summer):

Yesterday, one lone MP resigned from the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats, and that was enough to lose the Conservatives their majority and make Boris Johnson the leader of a minority government.

That happened not long after Johnson announced that he would boot out (okay, effectively boot out, but let’s not get into that) any Conservative MP who voted against him. Last night, twenty-one of them did. At that point he became the leader of a government with a significantly smaller minority.

What they voted against him on was–damn this is hard to explain sensibly. Normally, the government has the power to set the agenda for the House of Commons, but the Commons can occasionally seize control of the agenda, and that’s what it did. This will allow the Commons to debate a no-deal Brexit today. 

When he lost the vote, Johnson said he’d call for an early election, but he needs the backing of two-thirds of the MPs for that to happen. Since a majority of MPs would be happy to drown him in the Thames, why wouldn’t they support a new election? Because Parliament shuts down for twenty-five days before the election, and Johnson would get to choose the date of the new election. If he chose his timing well, he could lock Parliament in a broom closet, withdraw from the European Union, and hum “Rule Britannia” while they pound on the door and yell, “Let me out!”

So although Labour’s been screaming for an early election, they’re against this one unless a no-deal Brexit is ruled out–which it won’t be. 

There are two ways around the need for a two-thirds majority:

First, the government calls for an election using the words “notwithstanding the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.” Then they’d only need a simple majority.

Can they do that, announce that they’re going to call an election ignoring the law governing elections? Apparently so. Do we know how to have fun over here or what?

But, of course, they don’t have a simple majority either. And proposing an election that way would allow MPs to set the election date, so it would lose Johnson his maneuvering room. And the bill could be amended, so Commons could tack on anti-no-deal wording.

It would also have to pass the House of Lords, so it’s a slower process. 

Second, the government could call a vote of no confidence in itself. 

Yes, seriously. 

If it passed, Johnson would be expected to resign and the Commons would try to agree on a new prime minister, who could ask the EU to delay Brexit. If the Commons couldn’t choose a prime minister in fourteen days (there’s a lot of political arm wrestling, not to mention posturing and an ego or two, involved), that would trigger a new election.

The BBC article that I pulled all that from (it’s the link several paragraphs back) calls that a high-risk strategy for the government. It doesn’t say that the crucial word in all this is expected, as in Johnson would be expected to resign, but it’s not entirely clear that he would, or whether he’d have to. The law’s fairly new and contains a lot of unknowns.

But back to the Commons seizing control of its agenda. If an anti-no-deal bill passes the Commons, which it probably will, the next hurdle is shoving it through the House of Lords, where it will, inevitably, be filibustered and amended. There’s an attempt in the works to set a time limit on debate. We’ll see how that goes.

The Scottish National Party is saying that a fall election would be a great opportunity for Scotland to demand a second vote on independence.

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That’s the headline stuff. In smaller print:

  • Scotland’s chief prosecutor has said he wants to intervene in two legal challenges to Johnson’s suspension of Parliament, saying that proroguing Parliament is it’s an abuse of power.
  • Speaking of abuses of power, Johnson’s special adviser, Dominic Cummings–the power, and possibly the brains, behind the throne–fired another special adviser, Sonia Khan, calling armed police to have her marched out of 10 Downing Street. He accused her of being the source of a leak–something she denies. The interesting thing here is that she didn’t work for him. She also didn’t work for Cummings’ boss, she worked for the chancellor, Sajid Javid. And Johnson wasn’t consulted about the firing. Read a few articles and you’ll find phrases like “mafia-style” and “reign of terror.” There are calls for an investigation into the firing.  
  • The government’s set aside £100 million for an information campaign to prepare people for Brexit, even though there are, apparently, questions about whether the government can manage to spend that much in two months. What do they want people to learn for all that money? That we should consult the government’s Brexit website, where they offer some fairly mild advice about travel, business, citizenship, and so forth. With apologies, I relied on a summary for that, not the website itself. The website wants to walk you through only what you need to know, and I bailed out at the point where it asked whether I’m a citizen. I am, but y’know, I just might want to know what happens to people who aren’t. But it’s all okay because the government has placed an order for mugs and T-shirts, so I feel better about it all.