Tom Rachman’s novels include The Imperfectionists and The Italian Teacher. He is based in London.
The genius of P.G. Wodehouse stories is in their balance, a charming poise between the absurdity of the upper-class fool Bertie Wooster and the elegant remedies of his valet, Jeeves. Always disaster threatens, always a solution arrives.
British politics today is suggestive of a Wodehouse tale, but written by an author so witless as to write only the bungling without remembering to include an agent of good sense. The result is not particularly amusing: Brexit is due in mere months, yet nobody knows what it’ll amount to – not the hapless crew that set it in motion, not the fretful citizenry, not the government itself, which appears more capable of collapse than of leadership.
Traipsing through this farce is the most Wodehousian character of all, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a 54-year-old dishevelled blond toff with a talent for leaping into action precisely when his country needs him least. His latest foray came this week, when Boris (known here by just one name) quit as foreign secretary, indignant over Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposal for leaving the European Union, which he deemed insufficiently drastic.
“We are truly headed for the status of colony,” Boris lamented in his resignation letter. “Brexit should be about opportunity and hope … That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
To describe Brexit as dreamlike is correct, for its campaigners promised voters a delusion, that riches and glory awaited outside the EU. Yet breaking with a bloc alongside 27 European allies, which co-operate every minute on trade and security and far more, means huge costs, needless complication and decline for Britain. The nightmare is that, in the Brexit referendum of two years ago, a majority voted for an imaginary future. Who among their deceivers will confess that the pledges weren’t exactly, quite, um … Well, tally-ho! Leave the cleanup to some other chaps, shall we?
This past week illustrates how Brexit is diverting the country. A crucial NATO summit took place in Brussels on the future of the Western military alliance; a British national died from exposure to a nerve agent, almost certainly of Russian origin; and Donald Trump blustered through the country, undermining the Prime Minister on Brexit in a newspaper interview. In none of these situations did Britain exude power. Just consider how the week began. Top European officials arrived in London for a meeting on the Balkans, supposedly to be hosted by the foreign secretary, Boris. But he was elsewhere, posing for a professional photographer, signing that resignation letter. The Balkans meeting? Boris never showed.Another son of privilege who won’t be properly held to account (except perhaps by history) is the previous prime minister, David Cameron. Recklessly, he called that national referendum on EU membership to deal with a pesky dispute within his own Conservative Party, where a nationalistic faction has long deplored permitting continental powers to affect Britain. Mr. Cameron understood the benefits of the EU, yet campaigned for “Remain” with lordly limpness. On the other side was chortling Boris the Brexiter, taking his clown-prince act across the land.
These two rivals had a history, having both attended the elite boys’ school Eton, after which each proceeded to Oxford, then joined the Bullingdon Club, a dining fraternity whose members are known for donning tailcoats and smashing up restaurants. In his defence, Mr. Cameron is the more refined variety of blueblood; he merely smashed up his country. When the referendum results came in, Mr. Cameron – instead of staying to fix his mess – immediately resigned. What a bother! Well, off I trot!
But this is old grumbling. A new Wodehousian character has risen over the past two years, and is leading the Brexit militancy, the multimillionaire financier and Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (also a product of Eton and Oxford). Mr. Rees-Mogg – with the yawning enunciation of the upper upper upper, in rimless spectacles and dark double-breasted suits – comes across like the Queen’s favourite undertaker. He’s a self-professed “man of the people,” and has produced a fair number of people himself: six kids at the age of 49, yet without bothering to change a single diaper. “I don’t think nanny would approve,” he once remarked. “I don’t think she’d think I’d do it properly.”
Mr. Rees-Mogg has no such doubts about his competence to change a country, so he agitates for the hardest Brexit. That alone, he contends, will honour the people’s choice. Some hardliners so despise the European Union that they’d prefer Britain to crash out without any divorce deal by the ordained exit date, March 29, 2019. If there is no deal, it could mean chaos at the borders, damage to the economy and a frighteningly uncertain future.
Ms. May is seeking a softer Brexit, which would retain certain ties with the EU. But whatever she prefers still needs European approval, plus the endorsement of the British Parliament. As Prime Minister, Ms. May is earnest, hard-working and pitiable – a last-resort leader who, when faced with an emergency, delays. So far, her greatest skill seems to be clutching onto a job that few rational people would want.
As for the forlorn Remainers, those who still yearn for Britain to reconsider, they are campaigning for a “People’s Vote,” a second referendum to approve or reject whatever deal the government reaches. Nobody, the Remainers argue, could’ve known what they were voting for in 2016. However, nobody with power in 2018 supports a second vote. Jeremy Corbyn, the white-bearded old-school leftie who leads the opposition party, Labour, refuses to oppose Brexit. He himself never much liked the EU. What’s more, national disaster could lead to his ascent.
He’s hardly the only contender for future power. In coming months, Boris will surely be offered cushy jobs and handsome book deals, but most here assume that he harbours loftier goals. As a child, he purportedly spoke of becoming “world king.” Becoming prime minister might have to suffice – not that the man would be so uncouth as to admit to ambition.
“My chances of being PM are about as good as the chances of finding Elvis on Mars, or my being reincarnated as an olive,” he once quipped. But Boris isn’t expected to say true things; you invite him for the japery. Another of his memorable lines is: “There are no disasters, only opportunities. And, indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.”
In Mr. Wodehouse’s novel The Code of the Woosters, Bertie ponders a vexing question: “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself ‘Do trousers matter?’”
The wise butler has an answer: “The mood will pass, sir.”
But the mood in Britain – anger, bewilderment, dread – isn’t passing. The nation has no Jeeves. And the ruling class has no trousers.