For a few days, it was possible to believe that the nightmare had gone. For a few precious days, it was possible to believe that it had actually all gone away.
When I went to Italy, two weeks ago, with my horrible new passport, and an international driving permit like something you’d get for rations in the Second World War, we were all waiting to see what the EU would put in the begging bowl our Prime Minister held out.
She had asked for yet another reprieve, this time until the end of June. Donald Tusk, who seems to care about the British people a lot more than our actual leaders, had talked about a year. Macron said “non”, but even he decided not to give us the punishment beating so many Tories now say they want. Instead, he gave us Hallowe’en. Not enough time for another referendum, unless some miracle occurs, but at least time to breathe.
And for about ten days we could breathe. The politicians went away and everything went quiet, or at least as quiet as it can be when the world goes on spinning on its axis, and the spectre of your elected countrymen and women trying to balance boulders on a pin-head disappears from view. About half those men and women want to flush the country down a giant toilet. The other half don’t want to, but aren’t prepared to do anything at all to take the toilet away. The leaders of both the main parties think “the people” voted to be flushed down that toilet, but can’t find a way to pull the chain. At the moment, their parties are “in talks”, but they can’t agree about the colour of the chain.
About half those men and women want to flush the country down a giant toilet
For those of us who are freelance, and meant to be at least trying to earn a living, it’s like the horror film you can’t switch off. No one actually pays you to follow every twist and turn of who said what to who, and which Tory leadership candidate is trying to be tougher, harder, and “cleaner” in their approach by suggesting yet more brutal forms of cutting the bond. But the whole situation changes literally every half hour, and if you do, say, go for a walk, or do some actual work, you’ll find yourself scrabbling to catch up.
If you’ve read my book, you’ll know what I think of mindfulness. To sum it up, I’m not a fan. But I think we can all agree that watching our politicians try to reconcile their personal career plans with the infinite complexities of a decision that involves untangling 46 years of legislation in ways that don’t make them unelectable, which is something they seem to care an awful lot more about than the career plans of the people who gave them their jobs, is probably as near as you get to its exact opposite. Get the Dalai Lama to breathe deeply and think about Brexit and he’d soon be knocking back the triple espressos and wolfing down the Kit Kats like everyone else.
Get the Dalai Lama to breathe deeply and think about Brexit and he’d soon be knocking back the triple espressos like everyone else
But for ten glorious days, we could live like the Dalai Lama. Well, perhaps not exactly. Orange doesn’t suit me, and I do like a nice glass of Vermentino, but perhaps he does, too? Either way, for ten glorious days, we could think about other things. What we were going to have for supper. Whether we needed some new jeans. Whether we would finally find the time to watch Fleabag, since we were clearly the only people on the planet who hadn’t. (Answer, in my case, no, though I still want to. Obviously.)
I spent the Easter weekend in a village in Northamptonshire. The sun shone. The birds sang. The fields were green and full of sheep. Some of the time, I even managed to put my iPad down. For the first time, I understood why so many people in the country say, in those toe-curling vox pops on TV news, that “it will all be fine”. The sun is shining. The fields are green. Why do you have to keep going on about trade rules and legislation? What’s that got to do with anything? Of course it will all be fine!
I loved my little stay in fantasy land. It was so peaceful. It was so calm. A tiny part of me wondered if I was making a lot of fuss about nothing. But when I gazed at the cows in the fields, I remembered that leaving the EU on WTO terms would lead to tariffs on dairy products of 35 per cent. When I looked at the sheep, I remembered that tariffs of 67 per cent would be slapped on lamb. Many of the people around me would go bust. The fact that many farmers voted for Brexit doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen. Facts, unfortunately, are facts.
When I looked at the sheep, I remembered that tariffs of 67 per cent would be slapped on lamb
When I got back to London, so did the politicians. The horror resumed. The Tory and Labour “top teams” are still pretending to talk to each other, but making no progress at all. Corbyn is desperate for anything that involves a customs union, so he can make sure Brexit actually happens. The Tories are desperate to avoid a customs union, because they know that their split party will split even more. There’s talk of another vote in Parliament next week, this time on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. If that happens, it seems unlikely to pass. Yup, here we are, still going round and round and round and round and just waiting for the music to stop.
Meanwhile, Boris and Jeremy and Sajid and Dominic circle, like hawks waiting to pounce on their prey. They’re bored with Brexit now. They don’t actually want anything to do with it, but they know they have to offer a pure, true, brutal Brexit to appeal to a party membership that has been taken over by kamikaze members of the hard right. What they really want, of course, is for May to sort out the mess and pass on the crown.
There is one politician who really, really wants Brexit. It’s perhaps not entirely accurate to call him a politician, since he pockets the salary, expenses and perks of being an MEP without actually doing the job. But he’s a politician in the way Machiavelli was a politician. He’s a brilliant tactician and he’s up against a bunch of amateurs. He’s called Nigel Farage. He’s started a new party. It’s called the Brexit party. And in the European elections on 22 May it’s almost certain to win.
Meanwhile, Boris and Jeremy and Sajid and Dominic circle, like hawks waiting to pounce on their prey
Other parties are trying to battle against him, but they don’t seem to understand the word “battle”. The Independent Group, which now calls itself Change UK, has unveiled some high-profile candidates. They include Rachel Johnson, because no political event in this country is complete without a Johnson. It isn’t all that easy to look at those candidates and think they scream “change”.
Four people asked me if I would consider applying to be a candidate. I don’t imagine I’d have been selected, but I did think about it hard. It’s just as well I didn’t, because I might have walked out of the first press conference. Change UK have barely talked to other pro-Remain parties, let alone formed an alliance. There will, instead, be a smorgasbord of pro-Remain candidates, in pro-Remain parties, to choose from. A sure-fire way to make sure the Brexit party wins.
We still can’t know what will happen on Hallowe’en. It seems likely that the Tories will, in the political terminology, be “slaughtered” in the European elections. It’s likely that this will push the party even further to the right. The 1922 committee decided yesterday that it wouldn’t change the rules to have another vote of confidence in Theresa May. (Yup, everyone who claims that a second referendum is anti-democratic is desperate to have a second vote when things don’t go their way.)
This makes it less likely that there will be a “no dealer” PM within the next couple of months, but not impossible. Jeremy Corbyn and his top team are still doing anything they can to avoid a second referendum. The big question is whether they stick to that position even if there’s a general election. If they promise one, they’ll probably win. They do want power. Of course they want power. But it isn’t at all clear that they want it at that price.
A “soft” Brexit now seems less likely. A second referendum still seems like a distant dream. I have a horrible feeling we’re sleepwalking towards “no deal”. I really, really, really hope I’m wrong.