Wed 28 July 2021

As the Conservative party rebels against its own ‘oven-ready’ EU deal, Otto English sees a parallel with the absurd self-defeat of the Austrian Army in the catastrophic Battle of Karánsebes

Boris Johnson, according to no less a source than his former employer the Telegraph, thinks that the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement “makes no sense”. 

Of course, the Prime Minister is perfectly entitled to his opinion but it is worth pointing out that this is his very own work he’s opposing: the ‘Boris Johnson oven-ready deal’; the one which was sold to us as a quick and easy microwavable agreement.

In late 2019, Johnson told us it was “good to go”. All we had to do was ‘prick it with a fork’ and ‘slam it in the oven’ and three minutes later ‘ping’ – Brexit would be done and we could all get on with our lives.

It was a disgraceful deceit but there’s nothing new in that. Johnson’s entire modus operandi over the past 20 years has been one long game of Would I Lie to You? in which he always does.

The Conservatives had one ambition in December 2019. They wanted to win. And their core message that the nightmare, which they themselves had created, could be ended as quickly as it takes to cook a plate of chicken tikka masala worked. They got an 80-seat majority and lots of exceptionally committed pro-Brexit cultists on the green benches.

Unfortunately, since the Coronavirus pandemic swamped the agenda, that ‘oven-ready deal’ has been left defrosting on a radiator and, as the end of the transition period creeps ever nearer, it’s starting to stink.    

The stench is so debilitating that even Johnson has taken against it, which is a bit like Bernard Matthews coming out as a vegan.   

The major sticking point is something the Prime Minister signed up to and one of the few sensible things he’s done.

Fairly swiftly, the entire army was retreating from itself, while fighting a rearguard – against itself.

Nobody in Ireland wants a hard border between the north and south, so to keep trade fluid, certain conditions have been agreed. Post-Brexit, companies in the north will have to file paperwork when selling into the UK but that’s not really much of a problem. Northern Ireland exports 35% of its goods into the Republic and 55% of exports to other EU countries. Remaining aligned to the Single Market makes perfect sense for the people, businesses and economy in the north, but it poses an ideological problem for the Government because it means that it has absolutely not “taken back control” of Britain’s sovereignty – the core belief in the sacred cult of Brexit. 

So to placate Brexit’s true believers, the Conservatives have plotted additional domestic legislation to undermine the very agreement they signed. This will make life difficult for everyone in Northern Ireland, but it will keep Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage happy. And that – genuinely – is the main thing.

The proposed legislation has rightly angered the EU and now threatens the entire Withdrawal Agreement. It could be sabre rattling. More likely, Johnson and his team have simply gambled that they can blame any coming crisis caused by a ‘no deal’ Brexit on ‘EU intransigence’ and, with their obsequious defenders in the British media doing their bidding, they will probably get away with it. 

Johnson and his Cabinet are wrecking their very own deal and putting British prosperity at stake for no other reason than pride and some meaningless notion of sovereignty.  

History, as great thinkers from Thucydides to Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus have noted, has a curious habit of repeating itself.

Full of Themselves

In 1788, the Austrian Army headed east to engage the Ottomans in the Austro-Turkish war. 

On the night of 21 September and on the eve of battle, a detachment of Austrian hussars crossed the River Timis, on the outskirts of Karánsebes, in what is modern-day Romania, and made camp.

At some point, they met Romani people selling food, schnapps and wine and, hungry after their advance and noting that there was no enemy in the vicinity, they imbibed heavily in everything available.

The lofty Cabinet of Conservative hussars probably don’t care about the result of the Brexit war. They are less concerned with winning, more bothered about having been seen to have won

The hussars came from the very highest ranks of Austrian society and saw themselves as a cut above the hoi polloi. So, when some hours later the exhausted infantry turned up demanding food and alcohol, the Hussars dismissively told them they couldn’t have any as they’d bought it all for themselves. 

A barrel was overturned, a single shot was fired and soon after that all hell broke loose.

In the confusion, many soldiers beyond the immediate friendly fire incident, believed that they were being attacked by the enemy and mistakenly opened up on the hussars, who in turn retreated on horseback through their own camp thinking that they were being attacked by the Turks. As they galloped through the line, the artillery units, believing them to be Ottoman cavalry, opened fire.

Fairly swiftly, the entire army was retreating from itself, while fighting a rearguard – against itself.

The following morning, the bemused Ottomans arrived, ready for battle, only to discover that everyone was dead, wounded or dispersed.

You’d imagine that there would be a handy German term for such lunacy, but the best suggestion I have received, from Twitter user Sabine Cornic, is selbstverstümmelung meaning ‘self-mutilation’. 

Let me propose ‘Karánsebesism’ – the act of attacking yourself, creating confusion and ultimately defeating your own side for no better reason than that you are drunk on self-importance. 

In all truth, the lofty Cabinet of Conservative hussars probably don’t care about the result of the Brexit war. They are less concerned with winning, more bothered about having been seen to have won.

As they push the fragile peace in Northern Ireland and risk the economic prosperity of this nation, they are turning the artillery not only on themselves but on us. And in the melee and the darkness, few are taking pause to notice.


Byline Times is funded by its subscribers. Receive our monthly print edition and help to support fearless, independent journalism.

Thank you for reading this article

New to Byline Times? Find out more about us


A new type of newspaper – independent, fearless, outside the system. Fund a better media.

Don’t miss a story…

Our leading investigations include Brexit, Empire & the culture war, Russian interference, Coronavirus, cronyism and far right radicalisation. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

More stories filed under Britain on the Blink

More stories filed under Argument