The tectonic plates have certainly shifted. The dead woman walking, aka Theresa May, has asked the European Union if it wouldn’t mind awfully giving us a delay until the end of June to decide what sort of Brexit we want and gone through the motions of asking the Labour opposition if it’s got any bright ideas. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, this has failed to bring anyone out in a rash of common sense.
In ancient Greek mythology a ruck on high ended with a woman called Pandora opening a box which was supposed to keep the lid on sickness, death and loads of other nasty things. Once they’d got out there was no way of stuffing them back in again.
And some stories run and run. When David Cameron asked the people if they wanted to stay in the EU or leave it, he lifted the lid on the sickness and death of British politics as we know it.
Over-egging? Hardly. Theresa May has offered to step down if MP’s agree to do as she tells them (make sense of that), cabinet discipline has more or less imploded, and government first handed over the reins to parliament, then asked its own opponents if they could do any better.
Another problem there. The Labour opposition is in as much of a pickle as the folk supposed to be in charge.
On both sides there are factions, and factions within factions. At odds with one another, and often even inwardly conflicted over what they want, what they’ll settle for and what they’re scared they might end up with if their tactics go wrong.
It all boils down to one simple word. Intransigence. Our politicians have become so engrossed in their own narrative they can no longer hear one another.
Hence the preposterous scenario of parliament first chucking out Theresa May’s withdrawal terms three times, then failing to back any alternative option.
Even the vote this week rejecting the idea of leaving with no deal only scraped through with a majority of one. When MP’s were asked the same question last month the margin was forty-three.
To say the parliamentary mathematics is unpredictable is like saying setting fire to one’s children is no guarantee of a place in heaven.
In a nutshell, if the Prime Minister comes up with a formula that rules out a second referendum some on the Labour side will refuse to come on board. But if she agrees to keeping closer ties to Europe after we’ve left the bloc her own hardliners will tell her to shove it.
To them, it would be a betrayal. A failure to deliver the Brexit the public was promised.
But it’s not taking sides to state that is a bit of a stretch. The referendum question was straightforward. ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
All sorts of promises were wrapped round this simple form of words by all sorts of folk. But that does not mean individual crosses on individual ballot papers had anything to do with any of them.
MP’s deluding themselves otherwise break a fundamental law of politics. Never believe your own propaganda.
So where do they go from here? Nowhere fast, on current progress. Which is why Mrs May has asked for a further delay to Brexit to wring out a few months’ more breathing space.
But it seems the European Council President Donald Tusk knows us better than we know ourselves. Which is why he’s suggested we hang fire for another year. And given us the option of pulling out sooner if we manage to get our ducks in a row.
What could be fairer than that? You may well ask, though the idea has infuriated some of Mrs May’s honourable ‘friends’.
One could be forgiven for thinking having their cake and eating it is not enough, as they’re also insisting on being allowed to choose which cherries they can pick out.
Of course, a longer extension would mean Britain has to take part in European parliamentary elections. But the brute fact is the world is bigger than the Palace of Westminster, and life does go on. If we’d managed to organise ourselves we’d be on our tod already, but we didn’t.
The hilarious sidebar story this week, of a sitting suspended on account of a water leak in the chamber says it all. Even the building where decisions are not made is not fit for purpose.
At the time of writing, the top-level cross-party talks on finding a shared position to put to MP’s are ongoing. But there are three schools of thought as to how they’re progressing.
One is that Mrs May is in listening mode. The second is that she isn’t. And the third is that she isn’t because she daren’t.
The predictable outpourings of rage at the delay to Brexit from those in her party who loathe and despise everything the EU stands for have been duly noted in European capitals. And some nations, notably the French, are inclined to say we should just be cut loose next week.
That view will probably be overruled, but probably is not certainly. The risk of a sudden and disorderly departure is real. Hardline Brexiteers say hooray to that.
At the same time, the possibilities afforded by a long pause include a second referendum or at least a very gentle and good-natured divorce.
All to play for, everything to lose.
It’s worth remembering the payoff line to the Pandora’s box story. Though loads of horrid things got out one thing remained. Hope. Though some translators put a different gloss on that word. For hope, they say, read ‘deceptive expectation’.
What do you think about the UK asking the EU for another delay to Brexit? Have your say in the comments below.
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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