The shoulder is, by common consent, where you want to be touched by the hand of history. One of Theresa May’s many misfortunes is that it has an overwhelming propensity to grab her by the larynx.
For a woman now known for little beyond the catch phrase “nothing has changed” it was unfortunate in the extreme that here she was, at this moment of impossibly high drama, letting the world in for a second time on her own private anxiety dream.
She opened her mouth. No sound came out. “Mr Spe-” was as far as she got, before her voice gave way to a hacking cough. Behind her were row on row of empty green benches. At least the backdrop wasn’t going to fall apart this time. It had never even done her the courtesy of putting itself up. And the P45 is surely a matter of days away, this time delivered not by a serial prankster, but by Jacob Rees-Mogg.
It was, in the end, almost just as well that she could not be heard. Everything she could not say has already been heard before. Delivers on the will of the British people mumble croak pause an end to free movement cough this is the only excuse me sorry the only deal available splutter. Arguably, her refusal to utter these words at a decibel level that might be detected by anything beyond a common carpet moth was an act of politeness.
These were words that did not need to be heard again. They have been said on repeat throughout the capitals of Europe and the TV studios of the United Kingdom for the last eight weeks. In the end they were worth forty more votes. She lost her second meaningful vote by a mere 149, as compared to 230 first time round.
The drama was reduced to no more than an administrative process at 11am. That was when the attorney general Geoffrey Cox declared his legal advice “remains unchanged”. That the UK would still have no means by which to unilaterally exit from the backstop. The European Research Group followed suit. So did the Democratic Unionist Party. The deal, already on its ninth life, was finally, irretrievably dead.
“Mr Spe...Mr Speaker I beg...I beg...I be…*cough* I beg to move the motion,” she began.
It may be the first time begging to move a motion has been done literally. Prehistoric pagans, regular users of ayahuasca and particularly gullible readers of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist like to imagine the Earth as a single organism, forever seeking to impose order and balance on a chaotic world. They will have found themselves vindicated by the latest clear and present evidence that even the common rhinovirus is now doing its bit to try and derail Brexit.
The whole spectacle was a never-ending humiliation. Her only hope of getting to the end was to take regular interventions, the equivalent of a standing eight count, to give herself time for her voice to recuperate. But the interventions all required a reply she would otherwise not have had to give, and so ultimately she prolonged rather than relieved her torture. If anything could sum up Theresa May in a nutshell, this might be it.
At one point, Caroline Lucas told her she should have a people’s vote. The prime minister raised her finger in the air, pointed it over the despatch box, and delivered what might very well have been a stinging rebuke, but it was done with all the oratorical force of Madge Bishop on her deathbed.
If this is to be her last meaningful act as prime minister, it is perhaps worth noting what she was at least attempting to say.
“The British people have been clear! They want us to implement the decision!” she gurgled. If you closed your eyes, the sound might very well have been mistaken for that of one of those desperate little tree pipits, regurgitating earthworms to feed the giant cuckoo chick that has taken over its nest, and whose appetite can never be satisfied.
Oh prime minister. The British people could hardly have been less clear. They are hopelessly divided, and as badly now as they have ever been.
“Let us demonstrate what politics is for!” she crackled, at the end of her empty peroration. It was to the great credit even of the walls of this ancient room that they barely registered the words that were said.
The last three years have been these islands’ greatest masterwork in precisely what politics isn’t for. Politics is the art of conflict resolution, and it has been thrown out of the window.
After her defeat was announced, she told the house they would be voting tomorrow on whether to take no deal off the table. The indications are that the prime minister herself will vote to do just that. This, after three long years of claiming no deal is better than a bad deal, and more recently, allocating £4bn of public funds to prepare for a no-deal Brexit that she herself is now planning on voting against.
The House of Commons has shown itself incapable of coming to a settled will on anything. And more to the point, there is precious little reason to imagine a general election would help.
We are in a place of utter chaos. Nobody voted for this.
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