An old American political verity holds that every monumental crisis produces gigantic figures capable of resolving them. The absence of such a giant therefore means the crisis isn’t as monumental as it seems. How’s that one faring, do you reckon, in the face of Brexit?
Before we go on, I must acknowledge that the readership may already have dwindled alarmingly. If the “B-word” at the end of the last paragraph caused some people to abandon this column for an article about the latest royal foetus, or the Three Lions’ eccentric win in Spain, no one could blame them.
Brexit, as even the elite corps of stoics who are still here might agree, has become crushingly tedious. Responding to a visibly shaky Theresa May’s Commons statement yesterday, in which she revealed the staggering news that not a nanometre of progress has been made, Jeremy Corbyn likened it to Groundhog Day.
In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, Bill Murray got to sleep with Nancy, learn jazz piano and ice sculpting, enjoy a railway-track car chase with the police, punch Ned Ryerson in the face, and so much more. Every day started with Sonny and Cher, but developed differently from yesterday. So living through Brexit isn’t like being Phil Connors. It’s like being Prometheus, chained to a rock while an eagle pecks out the liver that regenerates in the night to allow the horror to begin again.
If that’s a touch melodramatic, it reminds me of a poker pro’s description of tournament no-limit Texas hold ’em: “long periods of intense boredom punctuated by moments of extreme fear”.
The boredom is now winning out over the no-deal fear. Trapped on the hamster wheel as it spins its unending cycle of chaotic stasis, the boredom has become an almost physical pain – and the one universal about pain, as Orwell wrote, is that you’ll do anything to make it to cease.
If May returned from this week’s European Council meeting with an agreement, millions of us would not be that bothered about whatever it was she had agreed to. She could cede Gibraltar to Spain for two Barbary apes, sell Meghan and Harry’s unborn to Croatia for a fortnight’s holiday in Dubrovnik and give the remnants of the royal navy to Belgium in return for a bowl of mussels and three litres of whatever pretentious wheaty beer they’re brewing this month.
She could officially accept that Geoff Hurst’s shot never crossed the line, and that therefore she is petitioning Fifa to reassign the 1966 World Cup to the Germans. She could agree anything, however distasteful, however insane, however catastrophic, and bit of all of us would say: “This is beyond atrocious. But if it takes away the boredom, if it ends the pain – get it through parliament.”
As it stands, of course, she can get nothing worth having through parliament or the EU. Whether her fantasy that the EU would agree to her solution to the Northern Irish border was more or less preposterous than her fantasy that the Commons would vote for that if it did is a debating point of no practical relevance. At the furthest extremes of self-delusion, who has the energy to split hairs?
Yet here she was at the dispatch box, wittering about the unacceptability of “a backstop to the backstop”, reassuring the glazed eyes in the chamber and beyond that about this, as all else, she has been very, very clear.
If the reprisal of this mystery play wasn’t as paralysingly dull as May herself, it would be genuinely sad.
This is a prime minister caught in the middle of a religious war between the Tory right wing and the DUP, who would be burnt alive before they compromised, and an EU which has always been immaculately clear that it won’t sacrifice any core principles for expediency.
And still she speaks with the scope and passion of a maritime law QC discussing a nice legal point about access to shipping lanes in international waters.
She’s off to Brussels for Wednesday’s European Council meeting to do her familiar Oliver-Bisto Kid double act, first approaching the leaders with the empty plate to beg for “more”; then pressing her nose to the window of the dining room from which she’s excluded.
Miracles do happen, but I suspect we have enough experience to make an informed guess about how this chapter ends.
How the book ends is harder to foresee, even if the no-deal cataclysm now looks a clear odds-on favourite. But after 27 months in which she has achieved approximately nothing, the paramount question isn’t about backstops, or even backstops to backstops. It’s where the buck stops.
Still, her stubbornness and durability remain astounding. She is starting to rival Hillary Clinton in her capacity to take a punch. But if she comes back from Brussels with nothing but a belly full of humiliation, she will be out of ideas and out of time.
In that event, despite the lack of giants capable of handling this monumental crisis, the decent thing to do would be to step back, take the buck, and let one of the other political pygmies have a go.