30 April 2020
By Greg Denieffe
Greg Denieffe is feeling nostalgic for the good old days when the news was wall-to-wall Brexit. Here he picks cartoons to illustrate how rowing helped poke fun at the politicians involved.
Despite their procrastination, the IOC finally admitted defeat to the COVID-19 pandemic and confirmed that Games of the XXXII Olympiad, due to begin in Tokyo on 24 July, would be postponed until 2021. Sport, in general, has come to a halt and we armchair fans now realise what an essential part it plays in our lives. In fact, you could say that it is a cultural phenomenon, a lifestyle, and a necessary element to keep your wit and stay sane. Now where have I read something similar before?
In recent years, Britain has been on a bit of a quadrennial cycle all of its own making. The Brexit Olimpicks began as an idea in 2012; in 2016 they split the country and in 2020 the rules changed making them a national event.
The 2010 British General Election resulted in a hung Parliament (a Parliament where no single political party has a majority in the House of Commons) and as a result, the UK was governed by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party became Prime Minister and Nick Clegg of the LibDems became his deputy. The Conservative Parliamentary Party and if truth be told, the party’s membership, was deeply divided over Britain’s membership of the European Union. Cameron had a cunning plan – in the next Conservative manifesto, he would promise to hold an In-Out referendum on EU membership. This would unite his party; they would sweep to victory in the next election and he would save the day by getting concessions from the EU that would persuade the electorate to vote with him on the Remain side. Perhaps it was the Olympic feel-good factor of London 2012 that convinced Cameron that he could pull off this sequence of events, and early in the following year he announced that the British people must “have their say” on Europe, should the Conservatives win the next election.
As with all cunning plans, there were a few things that could go wrong, and political cartoonists are pretty good at spotting them.
Let’s take a look at how they portrayed The Brexit Olimpicks and the competitors that graced our newspapers and magazines since ‘the fun’ and ‘the Games’ began.
The 2010 Parliament went the full five-years introduced under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. The 2015 General Election was duly held on 15 May and even accounting for the promise of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the opinion polls were all unified in their predicted results – it would be another Hung Parliament. Wrong! The Liberal Democrats lost over 80 per cent of their seats and David Cameron found himself back in Number 10 Downing Street with a small majority and a promise to keep.
On the cusp of the 2016 Olympic Regatta in Rio de Janeiro, Britain was engulfed in a Remain v Leave debate. The referendum to unite the Conservative Party, sorry, decide whether or not to leave the Union Européenne, was given the ‘Êtes-vous prêt’ date of 23 June, the victory going to Partez by 4 lengths.
Cameron had done his best, and now it was up to the cartoonists. They didn’t let us down. Not wanting to go over the same images used in a previous HTBS article, I will omit those selected by Tim Koch for his March 2019 piece Brexit Rocking the European Boat.
This cartoon by Jan-Eric Ander could easily have featured two Boris Johnsons in the same configuration. Johnson fired up the Brexit debate by backing the Leave campaign, but two days before he announced his decision in a newspaper column, he produced a separate draft backing the Remain cause.
Mr Cameron decided that he would look on the bright side of defeat and resigned, triggering an election that would decide not only the next leader of the Conservative Party but the next Prime Minister. Boris Johnson was a candidate and a likely winner until Michael Gove, thought to be a Johnson backer, announced his own candidacy three hours before nominations closed, stating that he had reluctantly come to the conclusion that Johnson could not “provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” Johnson subsequently withdrew from the leadership race, leaving the door open for Mrs Theresa May to step through and by 13 July 2016, the UK had its second female PM. What could go wrong when your slogan is ‘Strong and Stable’?
May’s premiership was troubled to say the least. It included another general election in 2017 where she turned a majority of 12 into a shortfall of five seats, thereby requiring her to do a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party who had 10 seats… and they were all for sale.
Dear readers, let me introduce you to the ‘Backstop’ or ‘The Irish Backstop’ which was part of the draft Brexit withdrawal agreement proposed by the May government and agreed to by the European Commission. It aimed to prevent a hard border (one with physical infrastructure) between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit. This would be the only land border between the EU and the UK excluding the 1,200m stretch between Gibraltar and Spain. The backstop required keeping Northern Ireland in alignment with some aspects of the Single Market until alternative arrangements were agreed between the EU and the UK. Some saw this as a win/win position for Northern Ireland, but the DUP saw it as a hill to die on and without their support, Mrs May would join them on that hill.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster oversaw the introduction of the Renewable Heat Incentive in Northern Ireland that led to the collapse of power-sharing in Stormont (the regional parliament), where she was an MLA and First Minister. The price of the 10 votes her party had in the House of Commons (UK Parliament) is reported to be £1 billion. In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t the Conservative Party that picked up the tab but Joe Public.
Unsurprisingly, May failed to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons but at least we got a couple of nice cartoons.
Before his elevation to Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was the Member of Parliament for Henley-on-Thames (June 2001 to June 2008). When asked by the River and Rowing Museum to be part of their ‘The Collection’ series and pick one item to promote the museum, Mr Johnson selected a Civil War cannonball.
A headline in a Daily Telegraph article on 3 September 2019 declared: “Despite what historians may tell you, Boris Johnson is not Hitler.” He isn’t, but the object he chose to be photographed with reminded me of a little ditty with Hitleresque connotations, suitable changed to reflect his recent decisions and the company he keeps:
Johnson has only got one ball.
Francois has two but very small.
Gove has something similar.
But poor old Patel has no balls at all.
Johnson’s working majority (including DUP members) quickly disappeared when he lost his first division in the House of Commons. The Conservatives who voted against the government lost the whip and from then on, the Parliament was doomed. A fresh election to Get Brexit Done was necessary and on 12 December 2019 the Conservative Party won an 80-seat majority.
As 2020 dawned, the one bright light shining for those of us weary of Brexit was the Tokyo Olympics. By then, surely, everything would have settled down. The UK ‘left’ the EU on 31 January 2020 and via a withdrawal agreement, entered into a transition period that ends on 31 December 2020. Legislation passed by Parliament rules out an extension to the transition period, and Mr Johnson said he will not sanction one.
Just as serious negotiations on a new deal between the UK and the EU were getting underway and the difficulties posed by the self-imposed restrictive time frame to have them completed by late summer 2020 were being highlighted in the press, along came a new coronavirus that quickly turned into a pandemic and Brexit was knocked off the front pages.
The above cartoon by Charlie Everett is called “Saved by the Coronavirus!” Boris Johnson and his chief SPAD, Dominic Cummings, couldn’t believe their luck when Virus Mc Virusface began to relegate Brexit to a non-story. Unfortunately, when it comes to virology, Johnson doesn’t know his SARS from his Ebola and despite his cryotherapy during the General Election, he became infected by COVID-19.
Regular readers of HTBS will know that the rowing season for 2020 will go down in history as the shortest in peacetime. Foul weather caused the cancellation of most of the Heads of the river and the virus pandemic wiped out domestic regattas and the whole international calendar. And it is not just rowing that has come to a halt, even the famous Cotswold Olimpick Games, home of the Shin-Kicking World Championships, has been cancelled. Success in the event requires the ability to endure pain, the loser crying out “Enough” when they concede, which seems like an appropriate place for me to stop and announce that The Brexit Olimpicks has not been cancelled, only postponed. Give me shin-kicking, any day.
P.S. A quote for COVID-19 times: “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere” – Seamus Heaney.
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