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.

Britain gets a new cabinet: an update

Britain has a new prime minister, who even though he’s never been prime minister of anyplace before has the look of a second-hand car about him–the kind whose odometer broke when someone tried to set it back. So far, he’s told us that everything’s going to be wonderful with him in office. We’ll leave the E.U. by Halloween, with or (possibly preferably) without a deal, and this will make the country prosperous and united.

We’ll all have 100,000 fewer miles on our individual and national odometers.

In anticipation, the pound dropped against both the dollar and the euro.

More concretely, he’s appointed a new cabinet. So let’s check in on what a few of them have done in their limited time in government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is the new leader of the House of Commons and he’s banned metric measurements in his office. And if something comes into the office speaking metric and has to go back out in the same form? Presumably it will have to be translated into imperial units to be read and then translated back out of them before it rejoins the world. 

He’s also banned a series of words and phrases, including (but, oh, so not limited to) hopefully, very, due to, ongoing, equal, yourself, lot, got, pleased to learn, and unacceptable.

Equal? Yeah, it’s on the list. It will, hopefully, prevent staff members from saying, “Go fuck yourself,” when they’re told that asking for equal pay is unacceptable.

A couple of the entries (lot, got, and I am pleased to learn) have been reported but are unconfirmed. I mention that because this stuff is important and I want to be sure we get it right. I’m an immigrant here, so to a certain kind of person the way I use the language is always going to be suspect. Which makes me very much want to say, “Go fuck yourself.” Due to having an ongoing bad attitude.

Rees-Mogg’s staff has also been instructed to use a double space after a period–which in British is called a full stop, and I’m sure he’d insist on it being called that–and not to use a comma after an and

It is possible to use a comma after an and but it’s not easy. I’m not going to bother working up an example when I’ve got a lot of simpler ways to break the rules.

Staff members should also avoid using is too often. How often is too often? You’re on your own there. Do be careful, though, please. I care about you, and the world’s a dangerous place.

I is also on the list of banned words. Maybe, like the queen, he prefers one. One is–. Nope, can’t use is. One might be pleased to find a less awkward way to avoid its use.

Since he became an MP, R-M’s speeches have used words from the banned list 1,189 times. It may have gone up since that report, so let’s take that as a minimum, especially since uses of the word  I, mysteriously, weren’t included. And yes (ha! got the comma in after and), if you’re going to be such a public nit-picker, someone will sit down and count. Gleefully.

R-M also demands that any man who doesn’t have a title get the suffix Esq. added to his name. Women, presumably, are too unimportant to worry about. Or maybe the language doesn’t have an equivalent. I wouldn’t know.

Admittedly, the guidelines were established at his old office as a plain old MP and have been transferred wholesale to his new, elevated position as Micro-Manager-in-Chief, so presumably this hasn’t occupied all his time. That is, however, speculation.

He’s commonly known as the Honourable member for the 18th Century.

After that, anyone else is going to be a disappointment, but let’s go on.

Grant Shapps, the new transport secretary, has announced a two-page limit for briefings and says he will “pay attention to the font size and margins.”

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has brought his favorite pink cup to his new office. As far as I know, it’s not a sippy cup. 

Oops. Did I just start a rumor?

Priti Patel, the new home secretary, has a £1,000-an-hour contract with a company that supplies products and services to the same government she works for. She also earns £45,000 a year for working 20 hours a month for an accounting software firm. If she cares about the spacing after a period, limits her intake of government documents to picture books, or drinks from a sippy cup, it’s not on record but it might be preferable. 

Now let’s go back to that business about a double space after a period. If WikiWhatsia is correct (and I’m not going any deeper into this than a WikiWhatsia article, earthshaking though the topic may be), a double space after a period is called English spacing. A single space is called French spacing. There are other differences between the two, but let’s stop there. We’re not setting type, just reporting on it. 

So far, it sounds clear, but the phrases are often used in exactly the opposite way, and WikiWhatsia gives a good solid list of examples without managing to help me understand why or how that happened.

Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the trend in typesetting has been toward a single space after a period. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper, since in a book that small change can save a fair bit of paper. And many people think it looks better.

The U.S. seems to have made the shift to single spacing before the U.K., although even there high-end publishing stuck with the double space for a while. With the introduction of computers, designers and typographers have increasingly leaned toward the single space. In my experience, it dominates the publishing world.

So is R-M dedicated to the double space because he thinks it’s high end? Or because he thinks it’s English as opposed to French (and the English, if you’ll forgive a generalization, have a thing about the French)? Or because it was done that way in the eighteenth century and that’s his century? I can only ask, not answer. If he knew that in the early 1960s, when all girls with fingers were taught to type, no excuses accepted, I was taught that it was necessary, right, and moral to double space after a period. I was (partly deliberately, partly by nature) a monumentally bad typist, but for years I double-spaced after periods.

If that doesn’t take the shine off the double space, I don’t know what will.

Everything You Need to Know about Brexit

Quick, before the Conservative Party announces our new Blusterer in Chief, here’s everything you need to know about Brexit and how we got tot his point:

Brexit starts in 2015, when David Cameron, as Britain’s prime minister and the leader of the Conservative Party, makes an election promise to hold a referendum on whether Britain should stay in the European Union. This is smart politics. Isn’t Davey a clever boy? After the election, he’ll be back in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they’ll veto the referendum and that means he won’t have to throw himself, his party, and his country, out the fifth-story window labeled Brexit. But he’ll have shut up the Leave voices in his own party, the Leave voices in the U.K. Independence Party, and the Labour voices rumbling at him from the far side of the House of Commons and saying things he doesn’t pay attention to but that get on his nerves anyway.

Irrelevant photo to give you some relief from an otherwise grim picture: a field with corn marigolds.

Then the election’s held and his party wins a majority. Who knew so many people liked him?

Wave bye-bye to the nice coalition, Davey, because it’s going away.

Davey edges close enough to that fifth-story window and looks down. It’s a long way to the ground.

What’s a clever politician to do? He schedules the referendum and tells the country that it’s safer, stronger, and much better looking in Europe, so it should vote Remain. He promises to limit immigration by widening the Channel and to make the sky a tasteful and long-lasting shade of blue using paint from Farrow and Ball, which is what people with any kind of taste at all buy.

Remain loses. Britain will be leaving the E.U.

Why does Britain vote Leave? Because leaving will make Britain great again. Because it will let Parliament take back control. Because Rupert Murdoch said it was a good idea. Because Facebook is fun.

Davey resigns the leadership of his party and with it the prime ministership, and he retreats to a shed in his backyard, which being British he calls his garden.

What he calls a shed is nicer than some people’s apartments. Which he’d call flats.

He starts writing a book. He waits for someone to ask what it’s about but no one does. They’re focused on the window he left open. Several prominent Conservatives are writhing on the floor in front of it, trying to stab each other. The winner will get to lead the party and find a way from window to ground. One that doesn’t break bones. Or that does. The referendum didn’t say that no bones could be broken.

Theresa May emerges as leader of the party, largely because no one thought she was worth stabbing.

What, the press asks her while the other contenders lie bleeding at her feet, is Brexit going to mean.

“Brexit,” she says, “means Brexit.”

Yes, but what does it mean?

It means Brexit.

Oh.

Negotiations between Britain and the E.U. begin. The E.U. negotiators spread papers and studies and printouts on the table. The British negotiators set Etch-a-Sketch pads in front of them.

Time passes. Terri May calls an election, which will prove that, um, remind me, what will it prove? That the country backs her. That’s it.

That’s probably it. Also because it will increase her majority in Parliament.

She loses her majority and is held in place (the place in question being 10 Downing Street) only by duct tape and a small Protestant party from Northern Ireland.

A lot of time passes. According to the rules of the game, only so much time can pass before Britain has to go out that window, whether the two sides have managed to build a ladder or not.

An agreement is announced.

Everyone hates the agreement. Even the people who support the agreement hate the agreement. Britain’s negotiator resigns because he hates the agreement he negotiated.

Britain’s Parliament also hates the agreement, so Theresa May goes back to Europe to change the part of the agreement that talks about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It’s the only part of the agreement she can let herself think about.

The E.U. says it’s tired of talking to Britain.

Britain is also tired of talking to Britain. The Conservative Party can’t agree on what it thinks Brexit should be. It can’t agree on whether Brexit should happen. A group of backbenchers ask, “Wouldn’t it be simpler if we just closed the window?”

No one listens to them.

The Labour Party also can’t agree on what Brexit should be or whether it should happen, although it does agree that Brexit shouldn’t be what Theresa May negotiated. If that sounds like it’s more united than the Conservatives, it’s not. It can’t agree on whether it’s a socialist party, whether its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, should be its leader, or whether it’s doing enough–or anything–to combat anti-Semitism in its ranks.

It also can’t agree on the definition of anti-Semitism.

It does agree that the Conservative Party is anti-Muslim, but no one wants to talk about that so it wanders around mumbling to itself that it’s not anti-Semitic, really it’s not, but no one’s listening.

The Liberal Democrats agree that Brexit’s bad. Unfortunately, after their coalition with Davey, only three of them are left in the Commons.

Or maybe that’s twelve. Or eight. Does it matter?

The Scottish National Party is united: Brexit is bad. The Green Party’s also united, but it only has one MP, which isn’t enough for a decent split.

MPs leave the Labour Party.

MPs leave the Conservative Party.

They form a group that isn’t a party and fend off arguments about what they’d stand for if they did become a party by discussing the weather. Then they do become a party, adopting the name of an online petition group that they’re not associated with. They pass a resolution about the weather.

The online petition group objects.

Theresa May promises Parliament a meaningful vote on Brexit.

She promises Parliament a later meaningful vote on Brexit. But before that can happen, she has to go to Europe to negotiate an even better deal than the existing deal even though the E.U. has said there’s nothing left to negotiate. Many people–which is to say, me and possibly one other person–suspect she goes in and out of offices asking if they have any coffee made. She’s too English to ask if they’ll make some just for her.

When they do have some on hand, she sips it slowly while reading a magazine, since no one will talk to her. She drinks it black, because no one asks if she’d like milk.

If she drinks enough coffee, time will run out. Hickory, dickory, dock, Terri May ran out the clock. Parliament will look out the window and vote for her ladder because it’s five floors down and no one else has made so much as a rope out of torn sheets.

She lets the House of Commons vote on the deal she’s negotiated and it loses. She moves all the commas three words to the right and lets it vote again. Why? Because three is an important number in fairy tales. Three wishes. Three chances. Three brothers.

Hell, it’s as good as anything else going on.

It still loses.

To see if it can’t find a rational way out of the crisis, the House of Commons asks itself a series of questions: Should we leave the EU without a deal? Should we hold a second referendum? Should we drag Britain 50 miles to the west and whenever we pass the E.U. in the Channel pretend we don’t see it?

No proposal wins a majority. TV newscasters are mandated to use the phrase no one knows how this will play out at least once in every program. They use the phrase constitutional crisis almost as often.

Why is it a constitutional crisis? Because Britain has an unwritten constitution. This means that no one really knows what’s in it. It may prevent Theresa May from making herself the country’s second Lord Protector (Oliver Cromwell was the first) but it will be years before anyone’s read through enough papers to know for sure.

Isn’t this fun? We’re watching history being made.

Terri May promises to resign and dance the rhumba the length of Downing Street if the Commons will only pass her deal. She promises to delete every comma in the agreement. By hand. In glittery green ink.

Water floods into the House of Commons during a Brexit debate. A group climate-change protesters take off most of their clothes show the MPs their backsides.

All the possible jokes about both incidents have already been made.

Theresa May goes back to Brussels and drinks the Kool-Aid.

No, sorry, that was Jonestown and an American reference, not a British one. She drinks more coffee and is granted another extension. It expires on Halloween of 2019. All the possible jokes about that have been made that too.

A person can drink so much coffee and eventually Theresa May resigns, leaving the Conservative Party to search for a new leader. Every Conservative MP announces his or her candidacy. Every third one confesses to having used drugs. The ones who haven’t used them express regret at having misread the spirit of their age.

In the interest of democracy, several of the candidates promise to suspend Parliament so they can fulfill the will of the people.

After a series of elimination votes, the two candidates are Boris Johnson and Not Boris Johnson, but they seem to have agreed that Boris will win and Not Boris will have a nice job in his cabinet.

What happens next? Nothing good, I suspect, but that’s history for you: It’s one damn thing after another.