In 1981, tarnished by a legacy of nuclear embarrassments, the leaky Cumbrian atomic power plant Windscale was rebranded as Sellafield and the problems of public perception simply melted away, like hot uranium seeping into a water table. Likewise, we are no longer about to embrace a similarly contaminated no-deal Brexit. We are instead welcoming a nice, new Australia-style deal. But Australia doesn’t have a deal with the EU (even though it wants one). We are embracing a no-deal Brexit in all but name. It is, as the secretary of state Alok Sharma admitted to an unusually uncooperative Nick Ferrari on Monday, “just a question of semantics”. Ah yes. The Conservatives’ old enemies! Words! And their actual meanings!
On Monday evening, I opened my Anglo-Asian tandoori lamb vindaloo delivery and found a request to contribute to one of Dominics Cumming’s blue-sky, out-of-the-box think-boxes inside it, written on my poppadum in mango chutney. Cumming’s omniscient net-lords knew my every move. As usual, Cumming was looking for hot-ass cyber-freaks and batshit Ballardian head-jobs who could furnish him with shamanic sci-fi solutions. Apparently I was such a person because I had both written a comic book about a ghost and sung in 10th-century Anglo-Saxon on a dance record. Cumming needed a way to avoid identifying the incoming no-deal Brexit, which no one had wanted or expected, as the no-deal Brexit it clearly was. Sharma’s public admission that the Australia-style deal rebrand was linguistic smoke and mirrors had proved potentially problematic and threatened to unravel a number of other flimsy, fictional Conservative constructs, the implausible public persona of Boris Johnson having been deemed the most vulnerable to a moment’s scrutiny.
Normally I wouldn’t sell my skills to a Tory brainstorming session, but I am principally a live comedian and I haven’t worked since March. Under lockdown, my principles, like my trousers, inexplicably became elasticated and I was to be offered the usual £25,000-a-day consultancy fee, as long as I worked through a company run by an old schoolfriend of any current cabinet member. I was picked up and taken to the agreed secret location – a boarded-up, underground, art deco gentleman’s convenience on Shepherd’s Bush Green – where I joined four other futurist-warlocks round a socially distanced, circular marble table. One had blue-lensed granny specs and a green parrot on her shoulder; another was dressed as a kind of disco Rudolf Hess; a third wore tracksuit bottoms, espadrilles and a plain brown Primark T-shirt, but his bangle was festooned with runes. All were inscrutable, carried satchels and had produced incendiary content for opaquely funded libertarian blogs. They regarded Laurence Fox as a Trojan horse, Michael Gove as a stink bomb and Boris Johnson as an unpleasant but useful clump of sausage meat that could be animated to mouth whatever words were necessary, within its limited capacity.
In the centre of the table, Cumming’s head appeared inside an illuminated glass crystal ball full of pink gas. Initially, I assumed it was a three-dimensional holographic projection, like Laurence Olivier’s head in Dave Clark’s Time musical, Cumming broadcasting his image from elsewhere. He had previous form in being in two places at once, such as Islington and Barnard Castle, for example. But every now and again, Cumming’s face would groan and the head would shift uneasily and I realised the eyesight-anxious political fixer was actually crouching uncomfortably beneath the table with his skull through a hole, gas pumping into the simple goldfish bowl that encased it so it looked mysterious, like a shit Wizard of Oz. If any of my fellow situationist-idea-terraformers realised his ruse, they didn’t let on, fearful of dismissal.
“Sharma’s careless breakfast lips have exposed the semantic hollowness of the ‘Australia-style deal’ language virus, immunising some sections of the electorate against its charm,” Cumming’s head began, his voice condensed behind the glass, like someone speaking into a plastic cup to do an impression of Melvyn Bragg. “We must use our sock puppets in the internet, the press and the BBC to obscure it, flood the info-sphere with synonymous ideas, fabricating post-Brexit deals with nonexistent places and creating plausible backstories to stiff any grots that would verify them. Be about it!” And with that Cumming popped down beneath the table again to conceal himself. By Wednesday lunchtime, the airwaves were abuzz with our distractions, expendable loyalist MPs swamping Sharma’s indiscretion with expedient lies.
On 5 Live, Banbury MP Victoria Prentis said she was looking forward to an Eternia ™ ® style deal with the planet Eternia, He-Man ™ ® having already promised timber from the Skytree ™ ®; on Talk Radio, Torbay’s Kevin Foster spoke enthusiastically of our Equestria ™ ® style deal and of the untapped financial value of the manure of his magic Little Ponies ™ ®, especially the thick dung of Pinkie Pie ™ ®; and on Sky News, West Suffolk’s Matt Handcock nervously commended a Gor ™ ® style deal to Adam Boulton, while explaining it wasn’t his place to criticise the fantasy kingdom’s human rights violations, most notably the compulsory sexual captivity of all women, when it offered such valuable access to the slave markets of the Insectoids ™ ®.
By midnight, I had helped publicise fictional deals with the nonexistent realms of Atlantis, Plutonia, Pellucidar ™ ®, Lemuria ™ ®, Skartaris ™ ®, Etheria ™ ®, Lyonesse and Wakanda ™ ®, whose coveted metal, Vibranium ™ ®, did not exist either. And by the time Cumming spat me out into the Shepherd’s Bush night, I was so disoriented I almost believed it all myself. I drank a few cans of strong cider alone on the darkening green. All-but-empty night buses circled me, masked passengers staring out. “Everything will be OK,” I thought, “we have a Fantasy Island-style trade deal. The Plane! The Plane!”
Stewart Lee contributes 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poetry to a track on the new album by Asian Dub Foundation, Access Denied, out now