Call it Westminster’s natural predisposition to entropy. The breakdown from a natural state of disorder into outright chaos. Shortly after eight in the morning came the first resignation. Someone who no one had ever heard of quitting a job no one knew he had. An hour later Dominic Raab resigned as Brexit secretary in protest at the Brexit secretary’s inability to negotiate a deal. The cabinet’s loss was geography’s gain.
Après Dom, le déluge. Next to go was Esther McVey, hellbent on proving that an unemployed single woman could get by on universal credit. Then Suella Braverman, one of the dimmest of the dim. For the first time all morning, a wan smile passed across the prime minister’s lips. Maybe there was some light at the end of the tunnel. Though not for long, as further MPs, unknown even to their own families, began to make their excuses for leaving largely imaginary jobs.
Some normality was restored when Theresa May began her statement to the Commons on the draft withdrawal agreement. “We have negotiated an orderly Brexit,” she began to widespread laughter. God knows what a disorderly one would look like. Mumble, mumble, backstop, mumble mumble, Northern Ireland, mumble, mumble. She had negotiated the best deal that anyone could possibly negotiate and that was it. It was time government forgot about Brexit and got back to the business of creating jobs. To prove her point, she had already created a handful of vacancies in her own government.
Thereafter it was just a pile on. Jeremy Corbyn, the DUP and opposition MPs all stood to point out the obvious. That the deal the government had negotiated was a work of genius incompetence and broken promises. One that was guaranteed to disappoint the maximum number of people and had no chance of getting through parliament.
“Um, er, um,” said the prime minister. If MPs loyal to her were allowed to vote two or three times then there was an off chance she could get her deal through. And besides, everyone had got the wrong end of the stick. Her deal was a bit better than people were making out as she was preparing for every scenario. Except the one that was the most inevitable: a no Brexit through the inability of MPs to reach a decision on anything.
Nor was there any respite from the Tory benches, as Brexiter after Brexiter stood up to complain that their extreme Brexit fantasies were not being indulged, to demand the UK declare war on the EU and that the prime minister consider her position. Just a few Conservatives – Nicky Morgan, Nicholas Soames and Amber Rudd – offered words of sympathy. But these were more like verbal condolence cards with black borders.
Hatred has its uses. She might hate her life, hate her job, but she hated the idea of anyone else doing her job instead
We reached peak pathos when Labour’s Phil Wilson asked if she could confirm Britain would be better off without either her deal or no deal. She couldn’t, but neither could she deny it. The second law of Maybotics. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human, except where such orders would conflict with the first law of avoiding harm to humans. Under those constraints she just couldn’t bring herself to lie.
As the session stretched past the two and a half hour mark, May showed no sign of fatigue. Hatred has its uses. She might hate her life, hate her job, but she hated the idea of anyone else doing her job instead. Besides, as long as she was still standing in the House of Commons, she couldn’t be replaced as prime minister. If she could just spin this out for another 134 days she’d be home and dry. Several notes were passed to her which she ignored. She’d deal with these resignations later. One by one members of the cabinet peeled away from the frontbench to either consider their positions or bad-mouth someone on TV, until only Greg Clark was left. Greg who?
The chaos continued outside the chamber. The European Research Group retreated to a committee room to try to agree on whether they could organise a piss-up in a brewery. The meeting broke up inconclusively with Jacob Rees-Mogg heading outside the Commons pursued by a scrum of hacks, so his announcement that he had submitted his letter to the 1922 Committee could be drowned out by an anti-Brexit protester with a loudhailer. The sense of futility was almost complete. But according to those who managed to hear the odd word, Rees-Mogg did suggest McVey should be prime minister. A country trembled.
Rather later than planned – possibly because Chris Grayling’s much hoped-for letter of resignation was running late due to leaves on the line – the prime minister appeared to give a press conference in Downing Street. Or rather a press non-conference, as it turned out she really didn’t have anything new to say. She was going to plough on regardless.
It was another object lesson in Maybot denial. Nothing had changed, nothing had changed. She was going to deliver on the will of the people with a deal that was undeliverable. The fantasy was dead, long live the fantasy. The country needed to unite around the deal that the cabinet had agreed even though half the cabinet felt they couldn’t unite around it themselves. And that was it.
The abrupt nature of the ending caught everyone by surprise and it was a while before the first questions came in. These too were pushed aside in circular soundbites. May was in her preferred zone of semi-detachment. Both there and not there. She was going to carry on with the job. Yeah! Nothing had changed. She would be making new appointments once those who had been offered the vacant jobs had turned them down. Not even Michael Gove – one of the principal architects of Brexit – fancied taking on the job of Brexit secretary. Too much responsibility.
There was no panic. There was no leadership crisis. Brexit was no big deal. Everything was totally fine. Just channel her inner Geoffrey Boycott – a cricketer hated as much by his own side as by the opposition – and bore everyone to death. She ended the day on nought not out. A better result than might have been expected under the circumstances.