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Great Britain

Even the Tories admit it: only duty free can get us through | Marina Hyde

Now wanted north of the border for a prorogation scam, prime minister Boris Johnson went on the run this week with a series of alarming public appearances. Tuesday found him in a primary school, as per the timeworn political practice of ministers using inappropriate venues as backdrops. You know the sort of thing: “It’s great to come to this wonderful early years centre and announce 10 new active nuclear warheads, each capable of snuffing out 300,000 human futures in an instant.”

The reality was somehow even more unsettling, as Johnson wandered miles off script to wistfully inform the kiddies: “I’m afraid I didn’t do enough work at university. My strong advice is: don’t waste your time at university. [sigh] Don’t get drunk, don’t do … not that you would … but use it well … I frittered too much time at university, I’m afraid to say …” An excruciating pause. Shortly after, a boy no older than seven put his hand up and went: “Are we leaving Brexit with a deal or no deal?”

Wow. Look, I know Prime Ministers Say the Darnedest Things. But maybe the best way to stop no deal is to put a call in to Oxford and explain they need to retroactively award Johnson a first-class degree? Just claim there was a marking error or something. Having read the Yellowhammer documents forecasting shortages, pretty much any gambit is justifiable at this point in the interests of public safety. Giving the prime minister a belated first would just be the classics department version of a cop shouting at Raoul Moat: “It’s fine, mate! I know you didn’t mean to hurt her! Nobody’s going back to prison. Just put the gun down and we can talk.”

And so to another week in getting everything you always wanted. Johnson began with a horror show in the House of Commons, where his election offer to Jeremy Corbyn amounts to “Give me another series, you shit.” At least by glowering on the front bench and shaking his jowls and shouting, “Oh yes!” at Corbyn, Boris Johnson finally resembled Churchill. Unfortunately, the insurance dog version.

He ended the week even more clumsily, after some Downing Street genius let it be known that the DUP had shifted their red lines in a way that could lead to a deal. Have they? Not according to adorable DUP leader Arlene Foster, who denied it and declared ominously: “Anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories”, which sounds like the sort of coded message you might rasp down a telephone with a hanky over the receiver. Fair warning’s fair warning. As for whoever briefed this story, it’s all very well being the third hardest spad in No 10, and I’m sure Arlene will take your Call of Duty score into account when discussing the leak. But babe: you’re not really in the same weight division as the DUP guys, even if you did both wear combat trousers in the 1990s.

Others suspect that what will really be on offer when parliament returns is Meaningful Vote 4 – set to displace Jaws IV: The Revenge as the worst fourth iteration of a franchise ever. The latter at least gave us one of the great Michael Caine quotes. “I have never seen it,” said its leading man. “By all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Keen to build something other than resentment himself, Johnson spent the rest of the week promising a hardware bonanza. As always when he runs out of road, he suggested a bridge, followed by a promise to “bring shipbuilding home” with five new frigates. Maybe he could send a frigate round to the courts to stop domestic violence survivors being cross-examined by their abusers? Because thanks to his rogue prorogue, the domestic abuse bill is now back to square one. The only upside to suspending parliament has been the social damage done to Jacob Rees-Mogg. Not two months ago, that appalling old Hyacinth Bucket swept into office issuing naff decrees on the minutiae of how to address envelopes. He has now committed the somewhat greater faux pas of bullshitting the Queen.

That this is all set against a backdrop of an advertising blitz gives the UK the feel of a Paul Verhoeven satire set in the near dystopian future. There’s “GET READY FOR BREXIT”. There’s “BE ONE OF THE 20,000 NEW POLICE OFFICERS”. But my favourite is the Treasury campaign, where animated booze glasses trilled the news that: “Beer, wine, spirits and cigarettes will all be duty free for people travelling to the EU if we leave without a deal.” You might be reminded of those Conservative ads a few years back, which said the government was “cutting the bingo tax and beer duty, to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”. Those ads had their critics, but I admire the consistency and the realism, as the Conservatives continue to promote the notion that alcoholism and gambling addiction represent the smart choices for anyone governed by them.

In fact, these government-backed reminders to drink early and often fuel the same sense of deep optimism as that moment in the Chernobyl drama when the new recruit to the dogshooting unit turns up to the camp and sees endless stacked pallets of empty vodka bottles. When any government – Soviet or modern British – is pushing cheap booze on you, you’ve got to think you’ve landed on your feet. Haven’t you?

The alternative view, I suppose, is that government-advised inebriation and respiratory disease feels the next logical step of the Brexit shambles. “Prorogation” and “justiciability” and “stymying” and “fiat” – no one’s really sure precisely what these words mean, other than they weren’t in the brochure for the sunlit uplands. Still, don’t put your hand up and ask questions. Just accept we’ve been billeted in the irradiated uplands, gripped by a strong sense that the instruction book to our country has been lost.

Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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