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Brexit: The comical political crisis that is no laughing matter

Brexit, a comedy of errors
Brexit, a comedy of errors 07:32

There's a time-honored tradition in Britain: When things are looking really bad, take refuge in humor. They do a satirical, radio comedy show at the BBC, "The Now Show," and, lately, they're finding it's hard to be funnier than the real thing.

Correspondent Mark Phillips asked, "What's funny about Brexit?"

"Well, as we get closer to it, less and less," replied co-host Hugh Dennis. "I think that the general consensus, it seems to me, whether you are Leave or Remain, is just: Please, please, make it stop!"

Theresa May has tried to make it stop, at least for a while, because the divorce settlement she negotiated with the European Union has been rejected – twice – by her own parliament. She had to ask the EU for the whole Brexit thing (that was supposed to happen at the end of this coming week) to be delayed. She wanted three months; the EU gave her three weeks. 

But defeat delayed is not defeat avoided. Two-and-a-half years after the referendum, the country is still split more or less down the middle by those that want to leave, and those who voted to stay, and who say leaving would be even more damaging than they feared at the time of the vote.

Any suggestion the standoff could be resolved by holding another referendum – still a political longshot – is dismissed by John Curtice, Britain's pre-eminent public opinion pollster. Opinions, he says, have hardened on both sides.

"Because we are so polarized, and because we have so many people who either feel very strongly Remain or very strongly Leave, any fact, any development in the last two-and-a-half years has been interpreted differently," Curtice said. "So: If you are a Remainer, yes, you will say, 'Just look at how difficult it is for us to get out of this institution. It's therefore a bad idea.'

"But if you're a Leaver, you say, 'Look how difficult it is to get out of this institution. That just goes to show you why we should get out, because it has far too much influence and involvement in this country's affairs.'"

Funny, huh?

From "The Now Show": 
Donald Trump: "I'm surprised at how badly Brexit negotiations have gone. I coulda done it much better."

Shortly after the referendum in 2016, Phillips went up to a pub in the northern English town of Sunderland. It's a town where the only major employer is a car plant, where most of the production is exported to Europe … a plant whose future is now in doubt. Yet, Sunderland voted 62 percent to leave the EU.

And the boys in the pub were happy to explain why: "We wanted out," said Richard Cooney.

"The economy is in the toilet, really," Jim Bute said.

Phillips asked, "Is that part of the feeling, I hear people talk, 'We've got nothing to lose'?"

"That's why people have done what they've done," Bute replied. 

Phillips went back to the same pub this past week to see if they've changed their minds. Some had, but not in the way you might think. "I'm really hacked off about it," said Annette. She had voted to stay in the EU, but is so "hacked off," she's switched sides and now wants to leave. "I don't want to be in a relationship with people who can behave the way they have behaved, the bullies," she said. 

Gary said, "If the vote was held again, right now, even more people in Sunderland would probably vote to leave, which astonishes me."

"Out of spite?" asked Phillips. 

"It's almost brutal to me. It's almost, I don't know, suicidal. But I may be wrong."

There is anger in the country, anger in Parliament, anger confronting a government minister on the airwaves: 

Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow:  "Nobody in the country knows what's going on. Nobody in [Parliament] knows what's going on. And you know nothing about what's going on – even inside the cabinet. The cabinet is at sea, the country is at sea. We are a laughing stock."
Health Secretary Matt Hancock: "Is that a question?"

So much for British civility. Maybe it is time for a vacation from Brexit. As "The Now Show" co-host Steve Punt mused, "Doesn't have to be abroad, don't want to annoy the Brexiteers. We could just head for the West Country. Jacob Rees-Mogg could lend us one of his counties."

Jacob Rees-Mogg leads a group of the hardest-line conservative MPs who want to leave the EU now – the so-called "Cliff-Edge Brexit," no matter what the consequences. And he's straight from Central Casting.

When asked what's funny about him, Punt said, "He has been described as looking like a haunted lamppost. And what's good about him from a comic point of view is that he exactly matches everyone's caricature of a cartoon Englishman."

Phillips asked Rees-Mogg himself: "Clear though it seems in your mind of the benefits of Brexit, a hard, cliff-edge Brexit, is this a process that nobody is controlling right now?"

"The cliff-edge term is not the right one to use," he replied. "There's no 'cliff edge.'"

"Steep slope? Very steep slope?"

"It's not a 'steep slope.'"

A no-deal Brexit would be such an economic shock (almost everyone else agrees) that the government has been practicing using highways as truck parking lots while goods wait for post-Brexit customs clearance.  Imports of food and medicines would be at risk.

To Rees-Mogg, though, the problem isn't Brexit; it's that the prime minister doesn't really believe in it.

Phillips said, "It was sold as a very simple proposition – in or out, easiest deal in history, all those things we've heard, [but] it hasn't turned out that way."

"Which is not what happened," Rees-Mogg replied. "The government has been utterly supine, has rolled over and waited to have its tummy tickled, and then licked the hand that had been tickling it. It was a completely hopeless approach to negotiation. It had no backbone."

The referendum was held in the hope it would resolve an issue that had been festering in Britain, and particularly in its Conservative Party, for decades. Instead, it has stretched the political system (and maybe the country's fabled sense of humor) to the breaking point.

Or, as they signed off on "The Now Show," "We'll also discuss whether people are longing for the days when politics was dull and the news talked about other things, and how nobody predicted that nostalgia for the time before the EU would help lead to a referendum that would lead to nostalgia for a time before the referendum on the EU. My brain's gone..." 

Hugh Dennis and Steve Punt recording the BBC radio comedy series "The Now Show," and trying to keep up with the hilarity of current events. CBS News

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Story produced by Justine Redman.

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