Richard North, 29/07/2018  

Talking to Booker over the last week, it was he who decided to make as his theme for his column (no link yet) the similarities between the great Suez crisis of 1956 and Brexit.

He starts by telling us that you'd now have to be over 70 to remember what was long recalled as Britain's greatest political humiliation since World War Two, even if that is not strictly true. I'm not "over seventy" – I only turned 70 today – but I do remember the crisis.

There was a petrol station on my way to school and I most distinctly recall the queues of cars lining up to get fuel, after the canal had been closed. That led me to ask revered parents about it, and I got pretty good version of what happened – as much as an eight-year-old could cope with.

Anyway, that's not really the point. The key thing is, as Booker puts it, the echoes of this strange episode in the state we are getting into over Brexit. And setting the scene is something that I would not have understood as a primary schoolchild – that, for months that summer, after Egypt's new leader Colonel Nasser nationalised the Anglo-French-owned Suez Canal, the British people became split right down the middle.

Not only was Labour highly critical of the invasion of Egypt, roughly half the nation was gung-ho for prime minister Anthony Eden's plan to seize the Canal by force. The other half looked on utterly bemused and aghast at such folly.

When the climax came, and British forces were about to invade Egypt, one tabloid newspaper trumpeted across its front page "Eden gets tough! Let the cry-babies howl! It's GREAT Britain again!", while the then Manchester Guardian described the invasion as "an act of folly without justification".

However, as we know, no sooner had our troops landed than America threatened to destabilise the pound and the Soviet prime minister warned that unless we withdrew, he would "shower London with nuclear rockets". In the event, we at once retreated. Eden resigned and Britain realised with a mighty shock that it was no longer the power it had imagined itself to be.

There was a codicil to this in that, at the time, talks between the Six about the establishment of a Common Market had stalled. But, with the Suez Canal blocked, oil was in short supply throughout Europe and petrol was rationed.

This brought home Europe's dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and it also underlined the interdependence of the soon-to-become member states of the EEC. This gave new energy to the Common Market talks, more so as the UK had pulled out of the Canal Zone without informing their French allies.

A furious Guy Mollet, the French prime minister at the time, was in Paris meeting German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. Seizing the moment, Adenauer advised Mollet to "make Europe your revenge" for the "betrayal" of the hapless British. Later, only half-jokingly, Jean Monnet was to suggest that a statue was raised to Col. Nasser, "the federator of Europe".

Today, with only weeks to go before we were meant to have agreed the terms on which are to leave the EU, some might be thinking that the British are making Brexit their revenge, reflecting a similar split right down the middle in public sentiment.

On one hand, there are the Brexiteers – and especially the "Ultras" – who are echoing their own version of that tabloid headline, wanting to see Britain GREAT again, even if this means walking out without a deal, wholly blind to the consequences.

On the other hand, possibly more than half the nation looks on in bemusement at the ever more alarming shambles we seem to be making of our bid to leave. They read of how one industry after another is belatedly waking to to the disaster it could be facing.

With neither war nor natural catastrophe, the Government is apparently making plans to stockpile food and medicines; even of the possibility that, if we crash out without a deal, our airliners could be grounded and our airports closed, because we would automatically lose all that mass of legal authorisations which permit them to operate at all.

So unreal has it all become that when Heathrow’s chief executive revealed that he has borrowed £1 billion to cover the "worst-case scenario" whereby Europe's busiest airport could be forced to shut down "for two months".

Yet, not even the newspaper which reported this seemed to grasp the staggering implications of what he was saying. As might well have been observed in those fateful summer months in 1956, when Eden was hysterically working himself up to invade Egypt we really "ain't seen nothing yet".

The worst of it all, though, it that the nation is not so much divided as fragmented – shattered into multiple fragments making a mockery of the very term United Kingdom.

Apart from the obvious split between Tory and Labour, with the Lib-Dems blazing their own trail, The Sunday Times tells us that rival Tory factions are gearing up for an autumn confrontation. In addition to the established "leavers" and "remainers", it seems there is support for a new new faction that cuts across both camps.

This is the Brexit Delivery Group, which includes Andrew Percy, a Brexiteer, and Simon Hart, a Remainer. It is dedicated to avoiding a civil war on Brexit and now claims to have more than 40 followers who will push against any coup led by Brexiteers.

But, with a "no deal" Brexit very much on the cards, we also learn that Ministers have drawn up plans to send in the army to deliver food, medicines and fuel in the event of shortages if Britain does crash out of the EU.

Contingency plans for the armed forces to assist the civilian authorities, usually used only in civil emergencies, have been dusted down as part of the "no deal" planning. Helicopters and army trucks would be used to ferry supplies to vulnerable people outside the southeast who were struggling to obtain the medicines they needed.

The NHS is to go on a year-round "winter crisis footing", with drugs bought from outside the EU and stockpiled in hospitals, to make sure they are available to people in need..

Supermarkets have also taken a hand, asking their suppliers to hold extra stocks of some commodities, including goods such as tea and coffee. The German discount retailer Aldi e-mailed suppliers last month to say that it wanted to work with them "to help understand the potential implications" and to "mitigate any negative impacts". One might suggest that they also e-mail Mrs May if they are serious about wanting to help people "understand the potential implications" of Brexit. She could clearly use a hand.

What can't have helped is Amber Rudd, the former home secretary. She has compared Brexiteers to climate change deniers, saying: "Anyone who claims [Brexit] will be easy is being as cavalier with people's future as those who deny the belching of fossil fuels into the atmosphere is warming the planet".

Curiously, there is very often a correlation between so-called "deniers" and those who support Brexit, so much so that there is scarcely any opportunity for yet a further split. Their counterparts amongst the climate change advocates already tend towards remaining in the EU.

But where there really is a growing divide is in the "final say" grouping who want a referendum on the Brexit deal.

Given the demographics, where than 1.4 million young people would be eligible to vote in a fresh referendum compared with the 2016 Brexit poll, there is now, potentially, a young-old split, as the different age groups are pitted against each other.

The most decisive split, though, must now be between those who understand that a "no deal" Brexit will be catastrophic and those who insist on dismissing fears in "project fear".

Amongst the former group are a string of giant US corporations including American Airlines, Nike, Ford and FedEx. These have issued "a volley of panicked warnings about Brexit as nerves fray across the Atlantic".

According to the Mail on Sunday, the fears raised by American companies such as Texas-based American Airlines and Nike, with headquarters in Oregon, "are significant because they are warning only on the potential impact on profit. The firms are unlikely to have any significant political interest".

American Airlines last week told its investors it is worried that Brexit could jeopardise its ability to fly passengers and cargo in and out of London's Heathrow Airport. The company said the implications of the withdrawal are "unclear" and the impact on its business "cannot be predicted". FedEx said it fears Brexit could result in a "global economic downturn".

This echoes the Irish Times which has Cliff Taylor tell us that, "In aviation there is no fall-back position in a no-deal Brexit". When the UK leaves the EU and becomes a "third country", he says. it ceases to be part of the fully-liberalised EU aviation market.

Taylor, however, also picks up on the safety regulation issue, one of the few journalists to have does so. He notes that the European Commission has pointed out that after the UK leaves the clearance that the British authorities give in a whole range of areas from airworthiness, to permits to fly, maintenance, pilots licences and medical certificates, cabin crew licences, certificates for air traffic controllers – and on and on – will no longer be valid in the EU.

UK airlines would need to apply to fly into EU airports as so-called Third Country Operators, he adds, citing "author and blogger Richard North" who has pointed out that the rules require an application for a third-party licence "at least 30 days before the intended starting date of operation". Given that, as things stand, this application cannot be made until the UK leaves, this risks at least a temporary break in service after Brexit.

Putting this all together, we are beginning to hear a voice which until now has been relatively quiet – big business. Government, which seems to have been deferring to the noise makers, has been able to ignore the business case. But when they start making noises – possibly alongside the rational middle – this is a faction which carries weight.

Perhaps - and one can only surmise on this - there might be a new coalition in the making. But, until then, the defining character of Brexit is fragmentation - Booker territory, where we are split down the middle.

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