I have found it quite impossible not to be continually absorbed by the British argument over leaving the European Union.
An elderly French-Canadian man who sits every morning in the coffee shop I frequent in Montreal has been convinced from the start that the British will find a way to finagle their way through to a successful conclusion. “The English are very skilled at that kind of thing, you know,” he told me on Friday, “…keeping at it, obscuring the issue, until somehow they sneak through to a solution.”
I am not so sure he is right on this one. Theresa May has been doggedly sticking at it with a stubbornness that has begun to seem almost fanatical, insisting that only she is serving the national interest with the “only” deal available from the Europeans, a deal that unfortunately is unacceptable to the majority of British members of Parliament. She spent Friday touring the capitals of Europe seeking “clarifications” to the confusing issue of the “backstop” on the Northern Irish border, clarifications which were not forthcoming. However, back home, she refused to give in, insisting that clarifications were still possible, and she would return for another round of rebuffs (alhough she didn’t describe it exactly in those terms).
She seemed to be appealing to every English schoolboy to remember the story of Horatius at the bridge:
Before her weekend trip to save the bridge, as it were, the chairpersons of six select Parliamentary committees issued a statement warning that the “long-drawn-out arguments over Brexit, and delays in reaching an agreement on our future relationship with the EU, are having a serious detrimental effect on the conduct of wider domestic policy.”
In fact, important issues to do with a new ten-year plan for the health service, and a long awaited green paper dealing with social care, have simply been forgotten, and appeals to the Prime Minister that she pay attention to them have elicited no response.
According to an article in The Guardian on Saturday, one of the many former Tory ministers (four or five of whom, and a passle of junior office-holders have recently resigned from the government, unable any longer to support Ms. May’s deal), was quoted as saying: “It is hopeless, brick wall after brick wall…. My worry is not just about the deal and the fact that she won’t get it through and the EU won’t change it. It is about the country and the economy. We can’t do anything because she just insists on pushing on with something parliament will never agree to, so everything else we should be doing doesn’t happen. The country is being deprived of a decent government.”
The Labour party would dearly love to vote her out of office by a no-confidence vote, but the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, which provides Ms. May’s slender majority, has said that while it will vote against the deal, it would support her in a no-confidence motion, so Labour simply would not have the votes to win, unless some Tory MPs joined them in protest, an event that seems entirely unlikely. In addition to which Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has been lukewarm to the European connection all his political life.
John Crace, a Guardian reporter who makes fun of most politicians, wrote last week:
‘Let me be very nebulous.’ If only Theresa May could manage that then the UK might be in with a shout of surviving Brexit. Just a hint of a hint of certainty amid an ocean of vagueness might offer the faintest glimmer of hope. But all the prime minister can run to now is complete and utter despair. She has finally reached peak futility. Truly she is a leader for our times.
He says it can’t go on like this for much longer.
She is now experiencing a total systems overload… and more and more resembles the lone, almost silent hero of a spaghetti western, armed only with a water pistol. We all know it will end in a slow-motion finale…. And what makes it even more weird is that everyone will be rooting for her. It’s a bewildering irony that the entire country can empathize with a leader whose most striking feature is her lack of empathy.
Some of the incidents reported by the eagle-eyed reporters are highly comic. For example, after Ms. May had pleaded with her caucus for support, her Attorney-general Geoffrey Cox
strode out of the room and said over and over again in his booming voice that it had been a ‘strong prime ministerial performance, a strong prime ministerial performance’. He kept saying it all the way down the long committee corridor until he turned a corner and went out of earshot.
Meantime, those who insist on taking it seriously appear to be losing their sense of being in a TV reality show, and according to one report
in the Commons tea room a huge row broke out between Remainer Anna Soubry and Brexiter Boris Johnson that onlookers described as one of the most ferocious they had ever witnessed. ‘Where we are now is no good for anyone,’ said another Conservative MP. “We are back in the first circle of Dante’s hell – purgatory.’
The only new item this morning was that former Prime Minister Tony Blair had apparently turned up in Brussels to urge that the only solution was a second referendum, to which Ms. May --- or Maybot as she is regularly styled by Mr. Crace --- responded with a notable sense of not seeing any humour n any of this: “
For Tony Blair to go to Brussels and seek to undermine our negotiations by advocating for a second referendum is an insult to the office he once held and the people he once served.
It is said to be unusual for a Prime Minister to attack personally one of his or her predecessors in office, but Ms. May seems to have convinced herself that only she, and she alone, is defending the national interest.
But then, these are far from usual times at the Palace of Westminster.
I eagerly await the next episode.