Michael Gove thinks that the Chancellor is getting in the way of a ‘green Brexit’. Jacob Rees-Mogg is worried that it has started to look like Theresa May ‘doesn’t want to Brexit’ at all. Greg Clark is rumoured to have been tearful – with grief or with frustration we aren’t told – in Cabinet meetings to discuss our options on Customs. The Prime Minister’s idea for a partnership to avoid a hard border in Ireland is ‘mad’, says her Foreign Secretary, in between issuing demands for a personal aeroplane to transport him around the world. The alternative – favoured by the European Research Group – is called ‘max fac’ and is, literally, science fiction. One doesn’t have to be a ‘Remoaner’ to worry this isn’t going terribly well.
The thing that really grates is the repetition. The steely eyed amongst us will recall that there was a Customs Union crisis last year. Perhaps there was one the year before that, too. Even political obsessives are finding it hard to keep a fully ordered sense of time and place as these debates go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round. It is dizzying. And not in a fun way.
The problem that Theresa May has is multidimensional but also quite straightforward.
One, her stated definition of what Brexit means when it means Brexit is riddled with internal inconsistency, mutual exclusions and the very thickest of fudge. You can have membership of the Single Market and Customs Union or you can have a hard border in Ireland. You cannot leave one and avoid the other.
Two, there is no majority in the House of Commons for Mrs May’s meaning of Brexit but there is no majority in the Conservative Party for anything else. She would likely lose a vote on the deal she looks likely to get. She would likely lose her leadership if she secured via compromise a deal that would satisfy the House.
So the practicalities and the politics are aligned. They create for Mrs May an impossible and tortured situation. She is irreconcilable with herself.
Because Parliament and Party are so unmanageable – and because this issue is so momentous – political logic demands catharsis. It is for this reason that, despite the political class being frankly exhausted, some sort of democratic way out is being mulled with increasing seriousness by politicians on many sides. For Remainers, a ‘People’s Vote’ on Mrs May’s final deal has become the rallying point for disparate and fractured groupings looking to halt Brexit. With no majority in Parliament for either Mrs May’s deal or for any of the specific species of Brexit that others have called for, a referendum makes a certain amount of sense. After all, if this thing is just too complicated then who better to pull the plug than the people – the electorate – who got us into this mess?
For obvious reasons, this option is not particularly palatable to Brexiteers. They came a long way to win. From behind. They want their spoils.
But this group faces the same relentless arithmetic as Mrs May and have to concede that while they rule the Tory roost they simply don’t have the numbers across the Commons. Which is why some of them think it might be a good idea to change the maths. Another election – yes, another one – is now seen as almost inevitable and possibly even desirable by some on the Tory Right. Take note of senior Brexiteers like Steve Baker quietly getting themselves reselected by their constituency parties, way ahead of normal schedule.
You could be forgiven for thinking that – after her last, brutalising boogie with the electorate – an election is the last thing Theresa May wants. But humans as a rule are slow to learn from their mistakes. And while personal experience matters, political gravity exerts its own force. A snap election is not yet likely. But it becomes more possible with every passing day of Government stale-mate and front-page Cabinet bitching. When politicians can’t get to an answer they tend to ask the people for instructions. That time is drawing nearer.