Being massive is not the same as being obvious, as I learned by having a heart attack. The symptoms should not have left doubt: sudden, severe chest pain; a burning lash down the left arm; air refusing to enter the lungs; a vibrating sense of ill-being, the world turning sour and dark.
Still I hesitated before getting help. At some level I knew what was up, but really not wanting a heart attack seemed like a compelling reason why I wasn’t having one. Forty-five seemed a bit premature for that sort of thing. Later, recovering in hospital, I was described as young with a frequency that would be flattering in other contexts.
In hindsight, the symptoms had started a lot earlier. The feeling in my chest was an extreme variant of tightness I had felt before while running, and dismissed as unfitness. (Turns out: angina.) Such is the awesome power of denial, a psychological term cheapened by overuse. We are always describing others and even deprecating ourselves for being “in denial” of the smallest things, which is itself a kind of denial. Admitting shortsightedness around minor flaws is a way to avoid admitting blindness to much worse.
I was still hooked up to cardiac monitors and full of morphine, barely an hour after the insertion of two stents, when the metaphorical comparisons first presented themselves. The Labour party had ignored vital warning signs for years, failing to change course when avoidance of calamity was still available. So too had Britain’s pro-European campaign. I won’t stress the point too hard, being on doctor’s orders to minimise stress of all kinds. The compulsion to turn even my own medical emergency into a political analogy flagged a lifestyle habit in need of healthy adaptation. A month of convalescence has taught me to care differently. Not less, but less angrily.
It pushes the metaphor too far to say that Brexit broke my heart. I was culturally and emotionally attached to the European project and still believe UK involvement has improved this country. It will hurt on Friday night when EU membership ends, but not as much as it hurts when a blocked artery cuts off blood to the left ventricle. Having survived one of those experiences, I am palpably more relaxed facing the other one. It also helps to understand those hearts that will leap at 11pm on 31 January.
That sensitivity does not include deference to asinine Tory MPs licking their lips and commemorative stamps with triumphant relish. One of their number, Mark Francois, says he will stay up all night to “watch the sun rise on a free country”. Neither he nor any of his co-fetishists has satisfactorily explained what, in practice, they will be free to do on Saturday that is forbidden today.
In truth, the measurable liberties available that dawn will be European ones, preserved thanks to a transition period that the all-nighter Brexit celebrants resent as deferral of a greater rupture.
But there I have lapsed into another bad old habit. Remainers lost the argument with arch, eye-rolling negativity. In 2016 the pro-European case was made exclusively in terms of loss – forfeited growth, shrunken prestige, jettisoned jobs – while the leavers advertised gains. After the referendum, those Brexit promises were assailed by fact-checkers, myth-busters, expert debunkers, but what was the counter offer? What would leavers get in exchange for surrendering a prize for which they had voted, to which they were democratically entitled and which they had not yet received?
On we went, rubbishing the idea that Brexit was a bounty of freedom, sovereignty and control, irritating more than we converted, until Boris Johnson came along to lift the siege. By December, the liberation he could realistically offer voters wasn’t from Europe any more, it was from the argument encircling them. It was from us, the remainers.
Johnson’s winning formula was to downgrade the promise of Brexit from reward to relief, which was easier to deliver and still sounded marvellous. His opponents complain that the “Boris” brand of optimism is fraudulent, but that doesn’t matter when it is unrivalled in the market.
Pro-Europeans got stuck in a quicksand of nostalgia, rosily tinting the epoch of unchallenged EU membership as a golden age of moderation. It was easy to see it that way as the Conservative party waged war on economics and geography, making dissidents of its sanest MPs. But the remainer lament often sounded like privilege drowning in self-pity, which isn’t any more attractive in politics than in other walks of life. We had facts on our side, certain ours was the rational position. The failure to change minds just seemed to prove that rationality itself was in peril. Donald Trump marauding from the White House supported that hypothesis. But for all the solidity of our claims, the case we built from them was hypothetical. Brexit hadn’t happened yet, so we couldn’t convincingly call it a disaster. Nothing, it seemed, was really happening, despite the frenzy in Westminster.
The whole of politics between the referendum and the 2019 election seems to have been conducted in zero gravity. Arguments that should have weight had none and any crazy notions, once hurled, could fly around with infinite momentum. Only in the unique conditions of space flight could a man built like Johnson cavort like a gymnast. The landing begins on Friday. The country will soon feel the friction of re-entry into a thicker political atmosphere.
The prime minister is already feeling the pressure of earthly decisions: high-speed rail; Chinese involvement in 5G infrastructure; the divergent pulls of strategic cosiness with Donald Trump and trade continuity with Europe. Each choice makes new enemies and limits future choices. Johnson’s method so far has been to campaign against the very idea that government is difficult. It is certainly easier without effective opposition, but that advantage cannot endure forever.
The price of victory on a promise to “get Brexit done” is getting it done. On Friday we cross the threshold where Brexit must breathe the same air as other political projects. It sheds the immunity of abstraction and enters the realm of evidence. There will be no bracing inrush of liberty to get leaver hearts pumping, and no sudden cataclysm to vindicate remainers. If ending EU membership proves to be a mistake it will be a gradual tightening, a slow burn; the kind of problem that is easier to deny than to own. Massive, not obvious.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist