It all has the feel of the world’s most boring thriller. Though there are only just under seven weeks left until Britain’s official date of departure from the European Union, public life seems drowsy with a lethal brew of fatalism, insouciance and burrowing cowardice.
On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning, James Brokenshire, the communities secretary, looked less like the minister charged with preparing local government for the social chaos of a no-deal outcome than a beaming salesman politely urging a client to renew his contents insurance policy.
As for the voters, they give the impression of impatience rather than trepidation. Why can’t the political class just get on with it? If Brexit was ever a principled uprising, it now more closely resembles a form of boredom longing to be curtailed: it has more in common with a delayed Deliveroo order than a popular revolution.
The fact that Farage is now issuing explicit electoral threats should give remainers an unexpected form of solace
Yet that could still change if the mood of scratchy resignation were supplanted by urgency and a demand for clarity – a transformation that can only be accomplished by leadership and courage.
It is true that many remainers have fallen into a deep gloom since the House of Commons votes on 29 January, in which the Conservative party manufactured a temporary unity over Graham Brady’s call for “alternative arrangements” to the Irish border backstop, while Yvette Cooper’s pathway for an extension to article 50 was rejected. It has become increasingly orthodox to argue that the idea of a people’s vote is now, in practice, off the table.
But that is not how the most ardent Brexiteers read the runes. There is no doubt that Nigel Farage, though dreadful, is also one of the most cunning politicians of the age. The fact that he is now a figurehead of the new Brexit party and is issuing explicit electoral threats to the Conservatives and Labour alike – get us out of the EU on 29 March or suffer the consequences – should give remainers both pause for thought and an unexpected form of solace.
On Friday’s Newsnight, Farage’s ally, Steven Woolfe MEP (formerly Ukip, now independent), made clear that the party had been registered with two purposes in mind: first, to field candidates in the European elections on 23 May if Britain has not left the EU; and second, to give preliminary structure to the new leave campaign that would be needed in the event of a public vote.
How might this happen? Theresa May, who has revealed herself to be an Olympic class can-kicker, now proposes to return to the Commons by 27 February, either with a new deal or an amendable motion that will allow MPs to revisit the many permutations of the Brexit conundrum. As the Observer disclosed today, Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, supported by a group of Tory remainers, now propose that the Commons should be given the chance to back a deal – and then to put it to the electorate in a referendum.
Though this is an idea in its germinal phase, it has the great merit of intellectual coherence. A public vote is not, as it is so often presented, merely one option among many – an alternative, say, to “Norway plus”, “Canada-plus-plus”, or no deal – but a means of settling the thus-far-insoluble contest between the many plans on offer.
Indeed, the case for a plebiscite is much stronger than it was in 2016: three years ago, the public was voting about lies on the side of a bus in an emotionally charged shouting-match about nothing and everything. This time, they would be called upon to break a genuine parliamentary impasse about a specific and describable predicament. This would not be a re-run, but – at last – the real thing.
Assuming that Theresa May has not cobbled together a sellable deal by the end of this month, the votes that will be held on 27 February are the most important facing this generation of MPs. In all conscience, they cannot possibly countenance the suggestion that the prime minister be permitted yet more time to negotiate – a final vote being held on 25 March after the European council. No self-respecting parliament can be expected to take such monumental decisions only four days before the official date of departure.
So, two weeks from now, MPs must decide whether they do, indeed, value their contract with the electorate and their collective sense of dignity. They face that rarest of things: an authentically defining moment. Which means that this need not, after all, be the last pages of a dreary thriller. It could yet be high noon.
• Matthew d’Ancona is a Guardian columnist