The Prime Minister’s hot date with parliament came and went, his confident predictions he’d get his Brexit plan passed so much hot air. He’s always said he won’t go cap in hand to Brussels for another delay and they say they don’t want to give him one. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, all bets are currently off.
‘Doubtful it stood, as two spent swimmers that do cling together and choke their art.’
That description, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, of an evenly-matched battle in which both sides look like exhausting one another to death, neatly sums up where Brexit’s at.
Except that there are loads of different swimmers, all thrashing about apparently aimlessly.
A brief recap. So-called Super Saturday, the first weekend parliamentary sitting since the Falklands conflict, went badly wrong for the Prime Minister.
A motion was easily passed that said approval of his revised departure deal with the European Union would not be granted until it was set out, chapter and verse, before the commons.
This idea was dreamed up by former Tory cabinet minister Oliver Letwin, because, put bluntly, he didn’t trust Boris Johnson not to somehow slither out of his promises and land us with a chaotic no-deal exit.
Bit sad, you may think, when even the man’s own erstwhile colleagues think he’s dodgy. But there it is.
As a consequence of that delay a recently passed law came into force. The so-called Benn Act, named after a senior Labour MP. This insists he asks Europe for more time to organise something.
He’s always said he’d sooner be dead in a ditch than do any such thing. But, when it comes to it, that’s not really a very nice thing to happen to a chap.
And it’s always possible Boris Johnson will present his blueprint to parliament very soon and get it through, meaning no delay will be needed.
But glance out of the window and look out for low-flying pigs. You never know, there may be a few flapping about.
Failing that, we’re looking at months more wrangling and masses more spent swimmers gasping and gurgling and making the place look untidy.
As for the deal he did at least agree with Brussels last week, views are so polarised that it defies serious evaluation.
The Brexit party say it’s that soft it’s not really Brexit at all, while the Lib Dems and Greens say it’s so hard it’ll knock seven bells out of the British economy.
In reality, it is much the same as the package Theresa May put together, which parliament slung out three times. Tougher in some respects, but crucially minus that most controversial of aspect of the deal, the so-called Northern Irish backstop.
This really matters to the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the European Union, because it borders Ulster, which isn’t.
Normally, that would mean loads of checkpoints and customs posts. Which, given the all-too-recent and bloody history in the area, seemed not a good idea.
Hence the get-out clause that could, if absolutely necessary, have kept UK as a whole a bit closer to the EU’s customs rules.
But with that insurance policy down the tubes, Northern Ireland would be treated ever so slightly differently from the rest of Britain, meaning the border had in effect to be shifted over to the Irish Sea.
And it wasn’t just that ever-so-slight difference that so stuck in the craw of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist MP’s. They didn’t like the planned mechanism for ratifying the arrangements further down the line either.
Hence the nail-biting negotiations. Their influence with Tory Brexit hardliners, and their own ten votes, were always going to be enough to tip the balance.
They knew it. And their idea of negotiating is hardball with knobs on, if you’ll pardon the language. Little wonder that during the build-up to the European summit, then to the planned Saturday crunch vote at Westminster, hopes rose and fell like supercharged yo-yos.
Or bishops on steroids, very likely to the chagrin of any actresses in range. (That’s enough B and A jokes, ed).
Also, doubtless to the chagrin of much of the commentariat, the answer to every straightforward question about what was going to happen had to be every bit as straightforward. ‘Search me, guv, ain’t got a f***ing clue’.
Of course, no one put it like that. And it’s amazing how many millions of hacks’ little grey cells and hours of viewers’ and listeners’ lives can be as uselessly employed as in trying to train cats to sit up and beg.
The same applied after the mother of all anticlimaxes on Saturday. The frustration in some of the reams written on the subject oozed like juice from an over-ripe orange.
Including, maybe, this column. Sorry about that.
All this on the back of an Alice in Wonderland week in Westminster in which nothing was as it seemed. There was the State Opening of Parliament, certainly a grand affair and normally of great political significance. Hailing as it should the government’s plans for running the country.
In the event merely a wish-list, of what it might do if it is still the government.
In non-loony times, if MP’s didn’t agree to it that’d be it, there and then. Now it really doesn’t matter.
Informal briefings from Number Ten suggested the Prime Minister was sort of daring Her Madge to sack him. But as the law stands she won’t anyway.
Another event that would normally be a non-event was the government winning a vote in parliament. When this happened, a few days ago, it was worth reporting because it was the first time Bojo had secured a majority on anything.
Turns out it was only about clean air, which not many people don’t think is a Good Thing anyway.
But of course the government is way short of a majority, which is why, come what may, the general election can’t be far off.
And the polls suggest just about everyone’s got just about everything to play for.
Right now the Tories average out at eight points in front of Labour. Which should give them enough MP’s to outnumber everyone else. But they’d only need a two-point drop to be dropped right in it.
Funny how different life would have been if David Cameron hadn’t called the referendum in the first place. He’d very likely still have been Prime Minister, for a start. And the government could have got on with governing.
He himself said it was time to stop banging on about Europe, and outside the confines of his own party, surveys suggested most people agreed.
Little wonder his Chancellor and close mate George Osborne reckoned asking the punters was a risky idea. It wasn’t just the danger of them coming up with an unwelcome answer, but also the question of how the country’s run.
According to Oscar Wilde, democracy is ‘Simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people’.
And it’s clear both remainers and Brexiteers are feeling horribly bludgeoned, and inclined to blame one another.
Listen to any radio phone-in on the topic and the grumpiness is palpable. There’s a sense from Brexiteers that our green and pleasant land has been overrun by hordes of graduates and immigrants.
While from the remainer camp there’s a feeling that people who aren’t awfully well, you know, really should know their place and stick with Strictly and the footie.
It’s an ugly mood, and set to last.
Of course it’s true to say he who bludgeons last bludgeons longest. But who that’ll be is still, three-and-a-half years down the line, in the balance.
There’ll be blue skies over the white cliffs of Dover? Yerright, someone’s got to wave the white flag first.
Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.
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