Big Ben doesn’t bong at the moment. The great clock tower is encased in scaffolding, which is … this is nuts. There’s no point in any sort of thematic intro. Any notion of a theme, a strategy, has long gone by the by. The atmosphere is genuinely, now, very slightly hysterical. You can see it in the interviews, hear it in the Commons debates. No deadline really hits until it is in actual view, as god help us, any writer knows. On March 29, April 12 suddenly looked years away. The relief! The time to get something done!
And now…here it is! April 12! It became less than 100 hours to no-deal Brexit tonight, while parliament was still talking about how to talk about it tomorrow. Every second statement tends to be preceded by “look we should have been thinking about this two years ago”, and it’s not just writers who recognise that, but everyone who ever had to mug up for an assignment on the causes of World War I at three in the morning…except the nation’s supply of essential medicines didn’t depend on getting that essay in.
So, in that spirit, the government-opposition talks continued — largely through juniors, and at most between Tory deputy PM David Lidington and Labour shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, who, it has been said, left to their own devices would have had it sorted in an afternoon. Today, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement that no deal would be forthcoming. Not that there had ever seemed much chance of it, but round about yesterday, it became a zombie process.
Theresa May is unwilling to offer a second referendum, or even a permanent customs union, which is Labour’s lesser demand. “Mrs May’s ‘red lines’ haven’t moved”, Jeremy Corbyn noted in an interview today. Sounds like an old Cockney song, but it’s pretty much a rule-off on the process, which Labour was wary of from the start.
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They were right to be wary, for the Maybot did another of her direct addresses to the nation — this time from a John Lewis sofa, pretty much assuring them that Labour was working for her now. Labour, for its part, has been trying to give the impression that they are the basically rational party, trying to keep the Tory headbangers in line. It’s a measure of what a state the Tories are in that this is working. Indeed, it seems to be working better, the more the right tries to counteract it. “Jeremy Corbyn is a Marxist and a traitor to this country!” they shout, as footage rolls of Corbyn walking into a meeting with May. Labour supporters fretted that the party was being too accommodating, thus managing to look both compliant and Marxist, which takes talent. “We’re waiting for a phone call” a Labour spokesperson said this morning, when asked how talks were proceeding.
While this was going on, PM May turned her attention to Europe. “The prime minister has spoken by phone to the leaders of the Netherlands and Malta,” the BBC said, filling everyone with confidence. May was basically rounding up the “bottom 25” EU nations, to make sure they wont vote against an extension. Tomorrow, she meets the big 2, Merkel and Macron, ahead of the Commission meeting on Wednesday April 10, to pass the extension that May will ask for. She will want a short one to keep things focused on her withdrawal deal. But the EU will try and offer her a 9-21 month “flexible extension” — whose principle aim is to make a second referendum all but inevitable.
Parliament, in parallel, passed the Cooper-Boles bill, somewhat rhetorically outlawing a no-deal exit, and compelling the PM to seek the extension. Hardcore Brexiteer peers delayed the bill as much as possible, as the Commons hardcore Brexiteers — flatteringly known as the Spartans, though they are suburban types — began to move on May.
Labour and the left are having an increasingly fraught split between internationalist remainers (such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason) versus nationalist leavers (such as George Galloway and union leader Paul Embery). Essentially it’s rootless cosmopolitans versus Stalinists, according to each other, but nothing compares to what’s happening to the Conservatives. In the Telegraph tomorrow, Boris Johnson — looking to gain back some Brexit cred — says May has led the UK into a vassalage state. Today, Tory central office notified members that it was opening the lists for European parliament election nominations, which created “fury”.
Head Spartan Mark Francois wants an “indicative” leadership vote in the 1922 backbenchers committee, which May would lose. Chris Patton, ex Hong Kong governor and minister put it exactly: submitting a parliamentary democracy to a plebiscitary democracy was always going to hollow out a party that defined itself around representation. Of the Brexiteers: “They’ve become a jihadist party … I regret that the spirit of Rousseau has overtaken the spirit of Burke,” he said across the recorded Big Ben chimes of BBC radio news, the only place it can currently be heard. 90 hours to go. Ask not for whom the bell does not toll…