The great survivor has done it again. Theresa May is still prime minister and she’s still leading her troops on the long march towards Brexit. But there are no spoils of victory for May to enjoy. Her deal still won’t pass the House of Commons and the EU has categorically refused to renegotiate. There are still mutineers in the Tory ranks, ready with a blindfold and a cigarette when the inevitable happens.
Dominic Raab, who was Brexit secretary for all of five minutes, is calling on May to resign. Mark Francois spends his days on BBC News angrily waving documents around. And Victorian throwback Jacob Rees-Mogg has launched a full scale Latin assault on the PM, perhaps forgetting that she attended a comprehensive school.
Speaking of Victorian throwbacks, this whole sorry mess is grimly reminiscent of one of British history’s greatest blunders: the Charge of the Light Brigade. The Crimean War is so far removed from our own time that it’s easy to dismiss it as comical. After all, it was the last time British troops went into battle in full dress uniform. Still, there are lessons to be learned from that famous military disaster.
The elderly Lord Raglan was in command at the Battle of Balaclava and insisted on calling the enemy the French, despite fighting against the Russians in alliance with the French. From his position, Raglan could see the whole battlefield – his commanders on the ground could not. Raglan issued a vague order, which was relayed in a similarly vague fashion by Captain Nolan. The commanders in the field, Lord Cardigan and Lord Lucan, were brothers-in-law who couldn’t stand each other, further hampering communication. In the end, Cardigan’s Light Brigade charged into the wrong set of Russian guns – the heavy guns – and were shot to pieces. Lucan’s Heavy Brigade did not come to his brother-in-law’s aid, despite clearly seeing the situation.
Does any of this sound familiar? An out of touch leader? A vague directive, poorly communicated? Squabbling commanders? Personal issues clouding important questions? Plenty of blame to go around?
Theresa May has negotiated a like-it-or-lump-it deal and any attempt to change it smacks of desperation. The knives are out at home, and abroad, EU leaders have already moved on. In Brussels, in Dublin, in Berlin, the battle is over. The terms of surrender are agreed. Yet the light-on-substance brigade is prepared for a mad dash at a far superior enemy, commanded by Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab. God help them.
The Brexit Brigade is riding headlong into the heavy guns of economic and political reality. A hard Brexit is the Valley of the Death for the UK economy and British soft power. It will be strewn with the political corpses of Conservative backbenchers, and some Labour victims, too. Nobody got into this for a massive drop in GDP, a declining pound and international humiliation – still less the end of the union. The Scots and the Irish have followed the English into battle before. They know difference between barking orders and barking generals.
But the Charge of the Light Brigade holds other lessons for Brexit Britain. Those aristocratic brothers-in-law, Lucan and Cardigan, survived the battle and lived for many years afterwards. Captain Nolan, however, the man who had to deliver the fateful order, died in the first minute of the attack. A lesson for Theresa May?
Unlike Crimea, there won’t be a Tennyson to valorise the ill-fated heroes of Brexit. Bad battles make good poems, bad politics make good prose. And when the books are written, and the historical parallels drawn, we’ll still be asking the whys and wherefores. There’s still genuine disagreement about that terrible day at Balaclava, in a war that Britain won. But some things are clear: the Latin-spouting Oxford gentlemen haven’t gone away. The delusional commanders are still with us. And there are some fights that even the British cannot win.