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29th Mar 2017

Why Theresa May is about to find out who the sucker at the Brexit table really is

Britain's real gamble may be to discover what taking back control really means

Dion Fanning

And so the UK sets off on its expedition to the Big Rock Candy Mountain. As Britain gave its formal notification that it is leaving the EU by triggering Article 50, some are high on the improbability of it all. Priti Patel, the Tory minister and Leave campaigner, is said to be pleased her birthday fell on Wednesday to coincide with such a momentous day.

Maybe they will be right, maybe March 29 will be looked back on as the moment when the UK began the process, not simply of taking back control, but of finding out exactly what taking back control meant.

Right now, the detail doesn’t matter, only the slogan counts. Theresa May’s government is intoxicated by evangelical fervour for this vision of Britain which isn’t a vision of Britain at all.

Like the hobo in the ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ who sets off for the land where “you never change your socks and the little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks”, they believe they are heading for a place where all their problems will be taken away.

Some hope the people they believe are the cause of all their problems will be taken away or, more precisely, prevented from arriving in the first place.

They are drunk on all this promise now, even if the vision clashes so often with reality that the solution is not to question the vision, but to block out reality.

On Tuesday, pro-Brexit MPs in a Brexit committee walked out in protest at what they considered an excessively gloomy report on the UK’s negotiating objectives delivered by its Labour chairman Hilary Benn.

It would be tempting and obvious to compare them to a toddler throwing a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants, but that would be unfair to toddlers who are learning all the time and open to a variety of human experience.

The rabid Brexiteers are making no such progress. They are driven by the disease of nationalism and a fear of the other. Britain has set itself on a course which, at best, may turn out to be a massive gamble that results in marginal improvements, at worst will be a catastrophic folly which demonstrates the dangers of ideology.

One of the symptoms of nationalism is that it tells you that the disease you are suffering from is benign compared to the malignant strain that has infected other people. The English nationalist thinks he simply loves his country and wants the best for it, but he is riddled with irrational fear as all nationalists are.

They think so little of themselves and their version of their country that they can’t believe anyone except those who were born into it could want to share it.

May declared on Monday that the United Kingdom was an “unstoppable force”, but the force, thanks to Brexit, looks less unstoppable and more breakable.

The prime minister will have to satisfy a hardline so suspicious of any compromise that they view it as treachery. In doing so, everyone else will be marginalised.

In satisfying the extremists, she will break up the UK, with David Davis admitting that Northern Ireland could join the EU if it is united with the Republic of Ireland. The cure is worse than the disease Brexit is supposed to treat.

But the evangelicals see it differently and they are the only ones who matter. There is not the moderating influence of a powerful opposition. Jeremy Corbyn has entered that curious place where incompetence and wrong-headedness overlap so it is hard to say if he is intent on sabotage or just so inept that he mimics the characteristics of a saboteur.

He is irrelevant to the negotiations which will be his greatest and most destructive legacy.

It is not, of course, all Theresa May’s fault. In refusing to do anything but play to the gallery of xenophobes, she has made things worse, but she did not create the chaos. She has David Cameron to thank for that.

Cameron never seemed anything less than assured in his delivery, but in calling the referendum and losing it, he performed with all the skill and dexterity of a magician who, having sawn a volunteer from the audience in half, can’t manage to put her back together and hastily scuttles off the stage to groans of dismay and disgust, while the sound of sirens grows louder in the distance.

It is up to May to clean up the mess, but instead she leads a government who believes or says it believes in Brexit at its most extreme, at its most fervent.

They have made promises that can’t be delivered. They have talked about freedom and liberation when those who voted on that basis may be the ones worst hit by the economic fallout.

The 19th century Irish political leader Daniel O’Connell once encountered a group of labourers by the roadside who wanted to know how O’Connell’s efforts to repeal the Act of Union were going.

“What will Ireland be like when we are free?” one asked him.

“I don’t know,” O’Connell replied, “but whatever happen, you will still be breaking stones.

Britain might not want to hear this bleakness, but they will soon encounter reality and the gap between expectations and fact will come as a shattering blow.

Their problem is everybody knows it. They might be wise to remember the old advice for a poker player that says when you sit down at a table and can’t spot the sucker, the sucker is you.

Britain isn’t simply wilfully blind to the sucker at the table. Before sitting down they have been drinking wildly at the bar, mouthing off about their expertise and telling everyone how they’re going to clean up against these fools.

As they pull up a chair, leering and muttering, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”, they are walking into a trap they have set for themselves. Not only can they not spot the sucker, they don’t even realise they’re holding their cards the wrong way round.