The darkness rose like a theatre curtain over the Kent horizon and what the gathered audience saw was a piece of national performance art that will echo down the ages.
There was Britain, standing fully naked in a disused airfield, drawing over itself in felt tip pen, pointing at its pale puckered flesh and howling like an illegal Eighties raver at the apex of an MDMA overdose.
What was happening was a Potemkin traffic jam. A government-organised tailback, put on to frighten the European Union into believing Britain is ready for no-deal Brexit, and not, as was palpably obvious, in the grip of a full on nervous breakdown.
Some background: in the event of a no-deal Brexit that nobody in the cabinet or the shadow cabinet wants but may still happen anyway, Manston airfield in Kent is scheduled to be used as an overflow lorry park, to hold 6,000 vehicles stuck in the backlog at the Port of Dover.
So what happened on Monday morning, is that the government paid 150 lorry drivers to turn up and have a practice go. A practice go at waiting on the out-of-service runway, and a practice go at crawling the 40-mile round trip to Dover. Or more accurately, it paid 89 lorry drivers, because, in yet more encouraging scenes, the full 150 didn’t turn up.
The purpose of the exercise was not immediately clear, and given it was the brainchild, which is to say orphan, of Chris Grayling, it’s likely to remain unknowable.
If it was to prepare for no deal, through the staging of a traffic backlog less than one 60th of the size we are planning for, it was rather like preparing for a fight with Mike Tyson by having a not especially aggressive game of Hungry Hippos with a toddler.
If it was to frighten the EU into believing we are serious about no deal, it was rather like watching a man with suicidal thoughts bungee jump off Beachy Head to prove he’s not bluffing.
As we waited in the darkness for this demented dawn chorus to reveal itself, certain sounds and images illuminated the state of the nation at the start of the most perilous hours in its recent history. If the Great British public stand ready to summon the “blitz spirit” that is needed to get us through this, well someone will have to tell the woman behind the wheel of a Fiat 500 who slowed inexplicably approaching the junction of Manston Road and the A256 to aggressively sound her horn at the gathered masses and at best mouth and at worst bellow the words: “F***ing f*** off.”
On a personal note, from my car radio the morning news bulletins informed me that Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column says that “no-deal Brexit is closest to what the British people voted for”. It is so very tedious to have to say, yet again, that the British people were consistently told, by Boris Johnson, that a deal with the European Union would be the easiest thing to achieve in human history.
And yet here we were, not only with no deal literally appearing on the horizon with terrifying intent in all its demented glory, but being told to f*** off by a middle aged woman from the Home Counties driving the least threatening motor vehicle ever made.
Anyway, where were we? Independent analysis that is not seriously contested by either Leave or Remain shows that customs delays of just ten minutes per lorry at the Port of Dover will decimate the just-in-time supply chains on which vast amounts of UK manufacturing, from cars to consumer goods, are totally dependent.
So it is unfortunate to have to report that this entirely contrived Eddie Stobart carnival, whose vehicles carried no goods, and were not being checked for anything, still managed to set off around 14 minutes after the scheduled departure.
Independent analysis that is not seriously contested by either Leave or Remain shows that if a fake traffic jam, organised to make the EU think we’re serious about doing something we don’t want to do, fails to avoid the kind of delay it has been set up to prove it can avoid, whatever nanoscopic vestige of credibility we might theoretically have had will be destroyed in an instant. Which it was.
The world’s first, and presumably last, HGV circus was back at Manston in about 90 minutes, having driven to a pre-specified roundabout by the entrance of Port of Dover and come back again. Because it turns out a model traffic jam a 60th of the anticipated size of the real thing isn’t really a traffic jam at all. It was, we must assume, the easiest morning’s work in haulage history. It proved nothing, other than that there resolutely remains absolutely no high-water mark the madness of Brexit cannot reach.
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