No-one should have believed her for a moment. When did she ever mean anything she sounded as if she meant? If she means something, she doesn’t say it. When she says something, it’s what she wants you to think she means.
She aims off, as a hunter does. Don’t look where the gun is pointing, look where it hits. That was the target.
Labour jubilation on Tuesday that the castle they had been besieging had apparently fallen was followed after a few moments by stunned silence when it was realised that no such thing had happened. Then there were howls – of rage, presumably, since they are used to a lot of things in the Chamber but they are not used to being made fools of.
Essentially, the Government announcement was a two-sentence statement of which the first part said, “MPs will be given a vote on the terms of the Brexit deal before it is signed,” and the second part said, “If you don’t like the terms you can jump off a cliff.”
This sort of thing is normally called an ultimatum.
What takes some explaining is that not all the Opposition was outraged. Before the day was out, people who should have known better were calling this insolent piece of sleight-of-hand a “concession.” That of course is exactly how the Government presented it, but never can a wolf have looked so unconvincing in its fleece.
No matter: the people who needed to be convinced were convinced. Mrs May feared a revolt on her back benches before the Article 50 vote. This duplicitous announcement, a smile followed by a bite, was intended to buy the rebels off. It worked: the vote went through by a large majority. Why it worked is a mystery, since it is clear that once you add the second sentence, the first is meaningless. A vote is not a real vote, as a choice is not a real choice, if the alternative proposed is unacceptable. The alternative, in case you missed it, really is a cliff. It’s nothing, nada, it’s the outer darkness, in which faintly glimmers the vast holding net of the WTO trade rules.
The WTO is probably an excellent organisation which is doing its best for the peoples of the world. A set of international trade rules is better than piracy, dumping, unfair competition and economic warfare. Yes, I know that we have these anyway, but there would be more of them. And it is true that the WTO strives to bring down tariffs and simplify non-tariff barriers, but it has not got there yet and the latest round of negotiations, Doha, having been stuck for years like a boot in cement, has now been abandoned.
It was partly the complexity of international trade relations that led to the creation of the EU. Inside the single market there is a single set of rules. Outside it, there is the jungle. Norway, if it wants to export to the EU, must supply a mass of paperwork proving either that its products are made inside the European Economic Area, or that they comply with up to 500 different rules specific to whatever product it happens to be.
Well, we’d better not export to the EU, then. What’s that? It’s 44 per cent of our export market and it’s on the doorstep?
Why are we doing this at all?
Let’s set aside, for the moment, the unpleasant combination of bullying and dishonesty that characterises this Government, and ask why MPs so tamely put up with it. Someone should tell Theresa May to be careful. There are precedents concerning arrogance. Blair lost his reputation and cannot return to British politics. Charles I lost his head. However, Nemesis travels slowly, and meanwhile the present House of Commons does not seem capable of setting a mousetrap, let alone standing up to an overweening Prime Minister.
Many reasons for this spinelessness are adduced. They include the fact that pro- and anti- Europe sentiment cuts across all parties, which confuses everyone; that the only party aside from the SNP that has a clearly-articulated anti-Brexit policy is the Lib Dems, who are few in number and alienated multitudes of potential voters over tuition fees; and that Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition cannot, apparently, make up its mind whom or what to be loyal to.
That’s the first clutch of reasons. Here come another couple. Yes, a majority of Labour MPs would oppose Brexit in the House if they were free to follow their consciences, but they are not because they represent constituencies that voted Leave. Or because (Diane Abbott, where are you? come out, come out, it’s quiet now) they support a party leader who, while not actually sure what he thinks about Europe, has imposed a three-line whip as if he were.
And, finally, the big one. This cannot be dealt with adequately here because it demands a post to itself, but it underlies everything and is the one nobody can get beyond. There was a referendum. The Government is implementing “the will of the people”, so there is no point in Parliament’s being consulted at all. This is the bludgeon that lurks, ultimately, behind the Government’s insulting behaviour towards MPs and their powerlessness to respond.
Quite a package, isn’t it? No wonder, poor things, they just have to lie down and take it.
Does something occur to you? Too many reasons?
Here is an answering shot from the woods. The real reason why most MPs who know that Brexit is a disaster do not vote against it is that they are afraid of losing their seats. This is one of the problems with democracy and nobody has solved it. The argument about representation is sound as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Nor does the universal baa-ing about the will of the people.
Lastly, I could be wrong about Nemesis. Sometimes I think I hear a distant noise: is it a clattering of wheels? I heard it on Tuesday when John Bercow declared that he would not, as Speaker, invite President Trump to speak in Westminster Hall. The right piled in to condemn him for violating the neutrality of the Chair, but it was too late. A spark had flared in the place where it is most needed. It wasn’t the first: at the weekend, the streets had blazed up like a firework.
Inadvertently, Theresa May has roused a sleeping dragon. Sleeping? It was thought to be dead, its memorials a show of flags at football matches, its name a prisoner of the far right and the fondly-deluded.
It is not dead, it is not a delusion, and it is not anyone’s prisoner, least of all this Government’s.
See, here it comes, lumbering a bit and looking surprised, but steady on its feet, and that is real fire.
Be careful, Theresa.