Destination Brexit

James Meek

Since she unexpectedly started up and began to move on her election campaign, Theresa May has looked a lot like a driverless car – one of those vehicles built by Apple or Google that is supposed to be able to drive itself to its destination autonomously, using the vast computing power and clever sensors provided by its powerful designers to trundle safely from the car park to the shops and back without any intervention from a human at the wheel. Just punch in where you want to go – Brexit, via a quick stop at General Election to fuel up with extra seats – sit back and let the computer do the work.

One of the things that really foxes driverless cars, apparently, is when a cyclist glides in front of them at the lights and, while waiting for the lights to change, idly rolls back and forth on his wheels. The car detects each motion as a cue – stop, go, stay, move. Its powerful sensors and processors heat up as it tries to cope with conflicting and unexpected data. Its destination is programmed in by outside controllers. It must continue on its way, even at the risk of a systems crash, or a crash of a more traditional kind. Even when it is obvious to other road users that the driverless car has a problem, it is no use honking at it or yelling at the driver. It doesn’t have one. It just has a destination.

When Jeremy Corbyn sailed past May on his fixie bike last night and stopped in front of her, battered courier bag over his shoulder, gnarly tattooed calves impatiently pumping the pedals to and fro, May suffered the most serious so far in the streak of system crashes that have bugged her software since the launch. The data line IF SEATS LOST > 6, LOSE, RESIGN was in conflict with the data line IF RESIGN, DESTINATION BREXIT FAIL. The biggest design flaw with May 1.0 is that when the data conflicts like this, the default priority is always the destination, rather than the safety of anybody else, or even the integrity of the car itself.

Corbyn’s extraordinary achievement on 8 June is a joy to savour for many reasons: Britain turns out to be a braver, more tolerant and more hopeful place than it seemed a few days ago; the malign power of the right-wing tabloids is weaker than it seemed; austerity is over and grammar schools are off the agenda. But amid the high fives and backslapping, the driverless May continues to trundle towards her programmed destination, oblivious to the proliferation of warning signs, traffic cones, barriers and lollipop ladies signalling frantically at her to slow down.

May’s extraordinary statement at Downing Street after she met the queen, when she spoke as if she had never called an election, let alone destroyed her party’s majority in it, conveyed all the reassurance of your satnav intoning ‘You will reach your destination in fifteen minutes’ when you see the road ahead of you has been washed away.

There are defaults, and then there are defaults. I know little about the architecture of driverless cars but it would make sense that the ultimate default of a driverless car that cannot reach its destination is a kind of master destination – a return to the safe lot of the car’s manufacturers. In May’s case, that safe lot is marked not ’National Interest’ but ‘Conservative Party’. That is why we find ourselves in such a dangerous situation now. Internal logic may tell May that the best way to return to programmed safety is to crash through Brexit altogether. Deliberately to provoke and antagonise the EU, to distort their proposals, to present other European countries as Britain’s enemy, out to destroy us, and the Conservatives as Britain’s only hope, in a kind of hideous, besuited, lying re-enactment of 1940.

Somebody, please, take the wheel. Switch to manual.


  • 9 June 2017 at 4:00pm
    piffin says:
    Somebody is taking the wheel - extreme loyalist bigots. Friends reunited.

  • 9 June 2017 at 4:49pm
    semitone says:
    James I love your work but how are grammar schools and austerity off the agenda? May is Prime Minister and will enact the agenda set out in her manifesto with the help of the DUP. What is this extraordinary Labour achievement of which you speak?

    • 11 June 2017 at 11:25am
      James Meek says: @ semitone
      A prediction, sure, rather than a strictly inevitable consequence - but right now May doesn't look strong enough to carry a bag of crisps through parliament, let alone a manifesto. So we'll have to see. The interesting question about an end to austerity is 'how would we know'? Some balanced budget fanatics already called it under Hammond.

    • 11 June 2017 at 9:33pm
      JamesBaldwin says: @ semitone
      She can't push grammar schools through relying on DUP support because education is a devolved issue and so according to "English votes for English laws" the DUP should not vote on it. Within England & Wales the Tories have a majority, but there are many Tory MPs who oppose grammar schools, and now they think May is useless and are waiting for the opportunity to get rid of her, so I doubt she could whip her own party to vote for it, or that she'd even try to. Also, the manifesto has no weight because she didn't win the election, so the House of Lords would be free to oppose grammar schools and would do so. Grammar schools are a very divisive issue and do not have broad public support. Even with her previous majority of 17 many thought it unlikely she'd get very far with her grammar school project (and she had already watered it down): without a majority, it seems impossible. A minority government really isn't the same as having a majority, especially when led by a PM who has squandered her credibility: she will have to adopt a cautious, modest agenda. The idea that she is simply going to enact her manifesto as if she'd won is totally wrong.

      As for austerity, it is an exaggeration to say it is "off the agenda," and much of it will continue. But I think it may well be rolled back as many Tories will recognize that it was a major reason for their loss and they'll be anticipating another election soon.

    • 25 June 2017 at 6:40pm
      semitone says: @ James Meek
      Hmmm. And for what it's worth, you were absolutely right.

  • 9 June 2017 at 6:03pm
    Joe Morison says:
    I don't know much about Irish politics, but is there any chance of Sinn Fein breaking with the past and taking up their seats? Corbyn has been a friend to them, the DUP now has exaggerated influence, and they are in a unique position effect Ireland's future.

    It would reduce May's majority to one, but I suppose it would mean admitting a legitimacy to Westminster which would be impossible for them, to say nothing of how the loyalty oath to the the Queen would go down with the more militant republicans (they could always follow Tony Banks' example and do it with their fingers crossed).

    • 9 June 2017 at 9:49pm
      semitone says: @ Joe Morison
      Hey Joe, you of all people shouldn't be complaining! You got exactly what you wanted: the Tories are going to own this shit, in the you-broke-it-you-bought-it sense, and will hopefully shoulder the blame for the inevitable pain and suffering caused.

      I wish I'd put a fiver on it after reading your post yesterday. I hope you did.

    • 10 June 2017 at 9:26am
      Joe Morison says: @ semitone
      Not complaining, but a majority of just one would be even more fun. (I remember the hung parliaments in the late 70s - MPs being brought into vote no matter what, one almost literally on the edge of death.)

      As for the bet, I was tempted about ten days ago. Even though I thought it unlikely, the odds were very tempting, and I think we are all now so used to the unexpected happening, that I thought it would a good bet. Then I heard an expert on Radio 4 saying that it was seldom wise to bet on things you want to happen. Wise advice, even if this was the exception.

  • 10 June 2017 at 8:03am
    tenyards says:
    For decades Murdoch and the Mail have been the communications equivalent of Jimmy Savile, evil operating in plain sight.
    Collapsing newspaper readership in the last decade, the rise of the Internet and the previously ignored young created the conditions to inflict a severe reverse upon them.
    Whether this is a permanent shift, or just a pause until the right wing British establishment establishes control over these new circumstances, remains to be seen.

  • 10 June 2017 at 8:39am
    IPFreely says:
    Never underestimate the Tories. Things might look good for Labour at the moment but just wait until the backroom boys have picked up the pieces and told May what she has to do. They never give up on what they believe is their very own fief so that labour in power is always an interlude.

  • 11 June 2017 at 12:11pm
    Graucho says:
    The parliament act is still there and if the labour party chooses they can deny the government the ability to call an election to extracate themselves from their current predicament.

    • 11 June 2017 at 9:42pm
      JamesBaldwin says: @ Graucho
      They couldn't - the Act allows another election after a vote of no confidence in the government, which requires only a bare majority in Parliament. The Tories voting no confidence in themselves would be an amusing start to the election campaign.

    • 12 June 2017 at 12:10am
      Graucho says: @ JamesBaldwin
      Good point. Would be equally amusing to see 10 DUP members voting confidence in order to keep their grip on things.

  • 13 June 2017 at 5:08pm
    Max says:
    Do you think perhaps the Queen asked Theresa May on Friday "And what do you do?"

  • 13 June 2017 at 5:30pm
    foxoutinfront says:
    That May secretly wants to crash out of the negotiations has worried me for a long time: it's the only thing that makes sense of what seems to be insane behaviour. In spite of the recent electoral convulsion, we are still on course for it. James Meek is right: will someone please wrest the steering wheel away from her, whatever the cost, because the cost if she gets her wish will be even worse.

  • 13 June 2017 at 10:32pm
    stuvlos says:
    The car she was driving, was of course made in the EU ...An another in the constant and predictable refrain of the disappointed Romantic. For the sake of balance is there no-one out there who can write in the LRB of an optimistic possible future outside the heart of the EU [ I think the Customs Union looks pretty good to me ] Even the chipper Verhofstadt paints a pessimistic picture of the EU as a House of cards intent on centrifugalism.

    By the way, I greatly enjoyed your article on the move of Cadbury to Poland. Fascinating. But , try as I might I find it impossible to find anything more than some old PDFs on the SEZ rollout.

    • 14 June 2017 at 7:28pm
      brummagem joe says: @ stuvlos
      Actually Verhofstadt doesn't paint the EU as a house of cards. It's hard to paint an optimistic picture in the event of the so called hard Brexit because there isn't one. It's not binary of course as some on both sides of the debate like to claim. Britain is not going to collapse economically because it's a wealthy and stable country with a huge market of 64 million people. It's just going to be relatively poorer. How much poorer is the only open question.

  • 14 June 2017 at 7:42pm
    brummagem joe says:
    Where Britain goes from here is unclear but the chances of some more apparent than real exit from the EU (aka as Norway) have probably increased somewhat. Even Farage on the BBC admitted it a couple of days ago. This was always one of the only two options available. The other being a complete exit executed in an orderly or disorderly fashion. The EU (who are clearly going to dictate the terms of the divorce)was never going to allow some middle way where Britain kept the proverbial cake and ate it. Despite the bluster from Davis, The Mail, and co. Britain simply doesn't have the cards. At some point this was always going to become blindingly obvious and thus May's government would be faced with Hobson's Choice of a fudge or genuinely leaving with appalling economic consequences. Britain has the worst current account deficit in the G7 already and would be blowing up a relationship developed over 40 years with the largest trade bloc in the world that takes 45% of her exports. There is also a huge threat to tax revenues given importance of certain economic sectors notably the FS industry that drives the economy of London and the 8 home counties that together contribute about half of all tax revenues.

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