“Please don’t waste this time.” That was the advice of the European Council president Donald Tusk, handed out in the small hours of the morning a week and a half ago, as he announced a six-month delay to Brexit.
Don’t fritter it away like you have the past two years, was the message. Don’t keep searching for the Brexit Philosopher’s Stone, the mystical thing that might turn all the hundreds and thousands of Brexit lies into the truth, and make the impossible possible.
Standing next to him was Jean-Claude Juncker, who could not have made any clearer that the first stage of progressing with Brexit is accepting the withdrawal agreement, Theresa May’s deal, in other words, including the dreaded backstop. There can be no Brexit without it, apart from no-deal Brexit, and in the event of no-deal Brexit, the starting point for negotiations on any future relationship will be – you’ve guessed it – the withdrawal agreement.
It is time, they said, to get real. And so we must wonder how they, and indeed the rest of us must feel, at news that the very first thing the Conservative Party will be doing with its six months is dredging its rulebook for new and arcane ways to get rid of Theresa May, a course of action that will make absolutely no difference whatsoever to anything.
Now, we learn, various Conservative grassroots associations will be holding a purely symbolic vote of confidence in May’s leadership, which they hope will put pressure on the prime minister to stand down. For the record, May recently lost the most important vote of her premiership by a margin of 230 votes, a historic record. She did not stand down then, because she did not have to. She is not a great one for yielding to the purely symbolic.
That the Brexit wing of the Conservative Party has brought both itself and us to this horrific juncture is mesmerising. It is six years since David Cameron agreed to hold the referendum, to put party before country in an act of singularly atrocious cowardice and stupidity. He has broken both things beyond repair.
Bill Cash has been writing in The Sunday Telegraph about May’s “abject surrender” to Europe. He and others remain of the view that a Brexiteer, an ERG-er, might have done things better. It is worth reminding Sir Bill and others that Theresa May is prime minister chiefly because the Brexit wing of the party, via Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, were too craven, too vain and too plain useless even to get as far as the start of the leadership contest.
More to the point, they are scrabbling about now for arcane ways to get rid of Theresa May because they were too dim to get it right last time. From the very moment their no-confidence vote in the prime minister was announced in November, other wiser voices were pointing out their extraordinary naivety.
There had not even been a vote on the withdrawal deal by that point. Had they just waited a bit longer, fought off the babyish thrill to hold little press conferences with their little no-confidence letters, they might not have accidentally burnt their trump card.
Should they get their way, we must imagine their hope is to put Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street and all will then be right. The withdrawal agreement will be reopened, the backstop removed, for no greater reason than we have now asked them to do the one thing they consistently refuse to do. His two years as the worst foreign secretary in the nation’s history is a matter of no interest to them. That he is profoundly loathed by the people he would have to negotiate with is not a matter of concern.
Sir Bill, by the way, was happy to sit on the board of Vote Leave, three years ago, and look on as Dominic Cummings turned the referendum campaign into two things – payments into the EU budget (the £350m-a-week-for-the-NHS lie) and immigration (the Turkey-is-joining-the-EU lie).
All the deranged stuff Sir Bill and the rest have been going on about for decades – Global Britain, out and into the world, and so on – was wisely ditched because it has always lost. Now Sir Bill and the rest are too stubborn to accept the terms of their own victory, too cowardly to make peace with their own lies.
The only way the next six months are to not be wasted is if Westminster, and the rest of the country, do not allow the Brexiteers anywhere near Brexit. They are fundamentally malignant, and too useless to do anything.