I feel bad watching May grovel to Merkel over Brexit – shamelessness aside, she’s our last hope

The prime minister's hypocrisy is repugnant, but for now at least, she's back on the side of saving the country, not just her party

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 09 April 2019 17:37
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Theresa May must produce plan within 24 hours if she wants Article 50 extension, EU warns

As the next stage of her Farewell Punishment Tour takes her to Paris and Berlin, can you find a pang of pity for Theresa May?

I can, though the hypocrisy disgusts me. For months, my feelings about her were unprintably psychotic as her refusal to listen, let alone compromise, as she yanked us towards that cliff edge of cliche.

And then, with her latest flag-framed address to the nation, it changed. She didn’t. No one changes. But circumstances force us to modify our behaviour, and she did so more dramatically than widely acknowledged. She effectively switched teams.

It wasn’t that the offer to Jeremy Corbyn was necessarily a sign of anything nobler or more novel than her instinct to survive, it was that she appeared (though it may prove deceptive; she could switch back) to have resolved her central dilemma as I wanted, but didn’t expect.

Her choice after finally accepting her deal was more dodo than phoenix was as stark as any western democratic leader has faced in memory.

She could opt for no deal, thrilling an aggressive tranche of her cabinet and the Conservative base, and save her party at incalculable cost to her country, or she could refuse to burn the country with the virtual guarantee of incinerating her party.

When the crunch came, she went for the latter.

You could argue about her motive until doomsday, but whether it was patriotic sense of duty or desperation to cling to the illusion of power, she recoiled from the precipice when trundling over it would have let her leave as a Tory hero for the ages.

So today she suffers the gut-twisting indignity of going to Emmanuel Macron as Olivia Twist, holding out her extension bowl and pleading for more.

Angela Merkel will be a doddle, despite menacing noises from Berlin that May hasn’t produced a coherent blueprint (if any) to justify the delay.

But grovelling to a haughty, bellicose French president is a terrible humiliation even for the queen of pain.

One assumes Macron is posturing with his De Gaulle act, and that he will consent to an extension tomorrow, if for far longer than the two months she requests. May has the bargaining power of a Roman slave, and she’s no Spartacus. She must take what she’s given.

But any assumption is dangerous. Macron could wield the guillotine of “non”, in which case May’s next binary choice will make the previous one look banal.

In that event, she’ll have two options on Friday. Do nothing, and let us crash out at 11pm. Or revoke Article 50, bringing a merciful end to this intriguing experiment in national suicide.

Metaphorically, and perhaps literally, the RAF jet’s engines would be running as dusk falls. In the movie, and for all one knows in reality, she’d be in the flat above Downing Street with only the Arthur Askey husband and a pair of defibrillator paddles for company, glancing every few seconds at the countdown clock in an ague of blind panic.

What a decision that would be. If she stayed put until what her redundant RAF pilot would call “twenty-three hundred hours”, sobbing on Askey’s shoulder like Jana Novotna with the Duchess of Kent, she’d have to resign by midnight leaving us and the no-deal aftermath to the tender ministrations of whichever triumphalist Brexiteer won the leadership civil war.

If she flew to Brussels (that’s the film version; in reality, she could probably Facetime it), sprinting down the corridor at triple fields-of-wheat pace, and bursting in at 10.59pm panting: “Revoke, revoke. In the name of God, I revoke,” she’d have to resign by midnight leaving the Tories unelectable for Christ knows how many electoral cycles.

Were life to follow this proposal for history’s worst ever action suspenser, I reckon she’d take the plane, because right now May looks like our bestie.

If this is primarily on enemy’s enemy grounds, what enemies they are, the “I want-I want” tantrum-throwing infants of the European Research Group, with their investment funds moved to Ireland and the dismal fantasy about the Tardis trip back to the Fifties.

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“I want never gets,” so nanny used to say. It seems the old girl was right about Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker. They can do nothing but stamp their feet in the sweetie aisle, reaching their tiny fingers for the no-deal Haribo bag out of their reach, gazing yearningly through the tears across the Channel towards the Elysee Palace.

When Mark Francois screeches for a second vote of no confidence in May, he has a point. It does seem an outrage to democratic principles to be denied a second chance when the facts have substantially changed from the first.

Without a resolution, there being no mechanism to sack her until then, they are stuck with her until December. The barnacle quality that was so infuriating a fortnight ago looks different. For the near future, knowing her successor will inevitably be a hard Brexiteer, she is our best and only hope.

This has become tribal sport. We chose our teams long ago, and very few us (though probably enough to ensure a different result in a second referendum) have switched as May appears to have done.

Our emotions about the players are dictated less by logic or belief than team strip. Arsenal fans who hated Sol Campbell in the lilywhite of Spurs loved him when he moved across north London.

The hypocrisy is repugnant, as I said, but for now at least May is wearing our colours. Reaching for the sick bag of self-nauseation, I feel that pang of pity as she braces for the punishment beatings, and wish her the very best of British luck.

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