For months the very word Brexit has left millions with a nasty but understandable rash of terminal boredom. But after so many cliffhangers followed by anticlimax, the next episode cannot fail to push the story along. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, time’s run out. Dithering is no longer an option.
‘Tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral.’
Those words, uttered by an annoyingly gobby politician in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, aptly describe what we’ve been seeing in Parliament for so long.
It’s made navel-gazing look like a thrilling spectator sport.
The British body politic has been so fixated with its own inward-looking and often counterproductive plotting and scheming that actually running the country has gone by the board.
Schools? Hospitals? Housing? Transport? Welfare? Who cares?
When European leaders got together on Thursday, essentially to bang MPs’ heads together, one exasperated top official said it was like dealing with a failed state.
An Ipsos MORI survey this week, giving Theresa May’s government a satisfaction rating of minus seventy-five percent, suggests the British public agrees.
And, love ’em or hate ’em, the folk across the channel have made a better fist of things.
Heads of twenty-seven sovereign states managed a common position on the way forward in a matter of hours. Unlike the British parliament, after nearly three years.
Not totally surprising though, as the referendum of June 2016 blandly asked if we’re in our out.
Bit like wondering if we want to live in East Cheam or somewhere else. OK, not East Cheam then, but the rest of the world is rather a big place.
Europe’s been a running sore in the Tory party ever since we joined the club 1973, as Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May know to their cost.
There are different shades of opinion among the hardcore outers, but they’re all convinced their personal utopia is where the nation voted to go.
Everyone, right across the spectrum, has insisted they’re expressing the will of the people. Really?
Historians have long argued about whether it was Goebbels or Lenin who first came up with the line, but in the current crazy climate, it resonates. ‘A lie told long enough become a truth’.
But it’s hard to dispute that People Power encapsulated in the referendum only went so far. It boiled down to ‘tell us what you don’t want, and we’ll decide the rest’.
Now factor in a so-called ‘government’ without a commons majority that’s tearing itself apart, with both Tory and Labour parties every bit as split at all levels.
And it’s not like ordinary political dialogue, in which people disagree but respect one another’s differing views. It’s got close up and personal, both in the street, within families and between politicians.
Theresa May gave vent to her frustration on Wednesday, suggesting MP’s who weren’t on her side were somehow betraying the nation.
Next day some were furiously accusing her of stoking the flames of hatred directed towards them. And they meant hatred.
Disgruntled punters calling them tossers have always been around, but death threats are something new.
And how does all that look to the outsider? Like a load of playschool kids in such a state they’re throwing toys indiscriminately at one another, and a teacher feeling the need for a Gatling Gun.
Now let’s jerk back to reality.
With Britain’s departure from the EU scheduled for this coming Friday but no agreement among ourselves on the terms, and no certainty even that we can have another vote on the subject, the European Union has stepped in.
Yes, it has decided, we can have till late May to get our act together. If at least we can sign up to the departure deal that the Prime Minister’s worked out.
If not – and, remember, Parliament has already decisively turned that down twice – we’ve got a fortnight to come up with something else.
Given the strength of feeling against Theresa May’s blueprint it seems likely Downing Street won’t even bother to give it another go.
Instead, we can expect in coming days a series of ‘indicative votes’. Polite parliamentary parlance for ‘all right then you bastards, tell us what the hell you do want’.
And so they will. At long last.
Factions and there are many of them on both sides of the argument, have until now held their fire. Choose the right moment, old boy. Consider the constituents. Party loyalty. Mustn’t rock the boat and all that.
But finally, finally, with the deadline sprayed across the whites of their eyes, it’s jump ship or bust.
Options include staying closely cuddled up to the EU in trade terms, telling Johnny Foreigner to go and fry his face, or asking the British public if it’s changed its mind about leaving at all.
A petition demanding just that quickly topped four million and is set to rise further. The monumental turnout at Saturday’s stop Brexit march in London shows the strength of feeling. And opinion polls over the last few months have offered clear evidence of buyers’ remorse.
Against that, the howls of Brexiteer rage if we call the calling off off is certain to rip the Tory party apart and very likely do for Theresa May. Sooner rather than later.
But one thing is for sure.
Following the twists and turns of Brexit will cease in coming days to feel like trying to cover the third battle of Ypres in real time. There will be victors and losers. And we’ll know who they are.
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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