For the latest and weirdest Conservative dive into a Euro-anarchic tailspin, there are no words. I do not mean this in the sense that David Cameron’s demented posturings over an in/out referendum defy description, though that may be true. I mean that there are literally no words in the lexicon to cover the cocktail of chaotic misjudgement, rank cowardice and headless-chicken panic that has this week intoxicated the Prime Minister beyond his wits.
In such an event, there is nothing for it but to invent a new hybrid word. The presence at its end of “shambles” is a gimme. The challenging part is the bit at the front. All the obvious candidates – hyper-, mega-, uber-, and so on – themselves fail to convey the surreal quality of Mr Cameron’s confusion. One minute, he has his proxy Barack Obama deliver a mechanical call for moderation to a Europhobic right which holds the President in contempt. The next, he contradicts that by announcing draft legislation – itself effectively contradicting the Queen’s Speech recited in his name a week ago – with a fair chance of not being voted on at all, if the Liberal Democrats deny it parliamentary time, and none whatever of passing since there is nothing like a majority for it in the Commons.
The best I can come up with is metashambles. This may be politics, Dave, but not as we know it. This is the politics of an alternative reality... a Bizarro World which superficially appears identical to our own, but in which the ancient convention of a Prime Minister supporting his own newly minted legislative programme has been turned on its head.
In this context, what point can there possibly be in trying to decipher Mr Cameron’s thinking? He is not thinking at all. All he is doing is obeying the primary animal instinct for survival. He is flailing about blindly for some magic formula to assuage the unassuageable, as a late-stage terminal patient in monstrous pain continues to breathe in the hope of a miracle cure. The danger of trying to comprehend his thinking brings to mind one of those early Star Trek episodes in which a malevolent supercomputer bent on destroying the Federation is fed a paradox and, in the doomed attempt to make sense of it, blows itself up.
While one appreciates this perpetual hostage’s paralysis of mind, the tactic of feeding limb after limb to his cannibalistic captors in the belief that the next one will sate them begins to look misguided. In February, he promised them a referendum in the next parliament, and neither his backbenches nor Ukip – nor, come to that, the electorate – took his word as his bond. If he foresaw that this empty pledge of an unwinnable vote to enshrine a future referendum in law would do the trick, already the ultras are licking their lips and sharpening the carving knife. The Conservative Party, which en masse cannot grasp that it has no mandate for anything, is eating not just its alleged leader alive, but itself.
How long this can continue is unclear. Too often we succumb to the temptation to expect a quick resolution to intractable problems which show amazing resilience by rumbling on unsolved indefinitely. But today’s Tory party reminds you of early-1980s Labour, with the quiet mainstream drowned out by ever-more emboldened extremists, and the conditions for a formal SDP-style schism seem almost in place.
Whether that would be a chunk of the euro-frothing right joining Ukip in despair at the lack of an immediate referendum, or a mass of centrists leaving to form a One-Nation centrist party in despair at the growing dominance of the nutters, feels irrelevant. The crucial thing would be the ending at last of the poisonous, passive-aggressive euro-marriage that has riven the Tories for decades, while the added bonus might be years of expensive legal squabbling over the rights to the name. A new coalition of former Tories and Ukip might wish to rebrand itself ConKip, for instance, while a virgin formation of refuseniks might choose Democratic Conservatives. In either case, or better yet both, the best precedent for such litigation is the legal battle for the name waged by former members of Bucks Fizz. Nigel Farage may be encouraged to note that, in that case, one of the rival reformed bands was fronted by a man, David Van Day, who had not been in the original Bucks Fizz at all. The prospect of a hostile reverse Tory takeover by everybody’s favourite Rothmans smoker has a certain ironic charm.
The one thing we may safely predict that Mr Cameron will not be doing any time soon is making his mind up. His mind is being made up for him by a ragtag coalition of advisers – official and unofficial – ranging from election supremo Lynton Crosby, via those Cabinet neo-bastards Michael Gove and Philip Hammond, to the quarter-witted backbench loudmouth Peter Bone. They and Mr Farage are changing his mind almost as regularly as John Major changed the grey underpants that Mr Cameron has taken to wearing in tribute to his predecessor’s euro travails, and with each freshly laundered pair, his position weakens further. In this world, if not in the parallel universe to which he has emigrated, he is a dead Prime Minister walking.