What started off as the occasional one-off gig for Theresa May has now turned into a permanent residency. For the past two months the prime minister has spent every Monday afternoon in the Commons trying to defend her Brexit negotiations. With ever diminishing success.
In the process, she has turned herself into a piece of performance art. What began as a vaguely comical dadaist interpretation of incompetence has now become something altogether more disturbing. A video installation of extreme mental disintegration. All her algorithms are now in conflict with one another. The prime minister is falling apart in front of our eyes and even her own MPs are in a state of shock. Most are struggling to believe that only last week they voted for her to remain as their leader. Delusion must be contagious.
The only passing nod to reality in the prime minister’s latest outing was to admit that an EU council summit had taken place the week before. It was just that she appeared to have attended an entirely different one to every other EU leader. In her mind, May had spent a few hours with Jean-Claude Juncker and Emmanuel Macron in which she had managed to convince them to renegotiate the Irish backstop.
It was just an administrative error that the 27 EU countries had released a press statement saying they were totally fed up with the UK’s hopeless attempts to renegotiate something that had already been finalised, and she looked forward to them rectifying their error some time in the new year. But if they didn’t she was expediting the no-deal planning by getting Chris Grayling to turn the M20 into a lorry park. The transport secretary looked horror-struck. No one had told him the M20 was anywhere near Dover.
That was just the beginning of the madness. After going on to say that parliament would eventually get a meaningful vote sometime in the middle of January, she made appeals to restoring the honour and integrity of British politics. By being in contempt of parliament and pulling a vote. That was too much for even her few remaining loyalists and she was heard in near silence. Her cabinet looked unblinkingly ahead, trying to avoid catching each other’s eyes, just willing this torture to be over. It was one thing for May to make an idiot of herself. To be complicit in the embarrassment was potentially career-ending.
Jeremy Corbyn had intended to call for a meaningless censure motion in the prime minister if no date for the vote was revealed, but since that assurance had been already been given he had to content himself with once more elaborating her many shortcomings and failures to act in good faith. How do I fault thee? Let me count the ways.
The prime minister’s out-of-date software systems promptly crashed completely and she started blaming Labour for the failure of the negotiations. Corbyn looked as astonished as anyone else. He was perfectly happy to accept he would almost certainly have screwed up the negotiations had he been given the chance, but as he had been on the allotment tending his Brussels sprouts for much of the last few weeks, it was a bit much to give him a hard time about it.
What followed was yet another humiliation for May. She probably reckons there have been so many of late that one more wouldn’t make much more difference. Or else she is now lost in a virtual world of her own, one where she is a fully functioning, sentient being. Where in previous sessions, backbenchers had merely been a bit tetchy at her refusal to engage with the realities of the situation and had begged her to reconsider her decision to wind down the clock by delaying the vote, now there was genuine anger. Not just from the likes of Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, but from her own benches too. Existential futility expressed as a howl of pain.
May merely put her fingers in her ears. La, la, la, she chirruped. Not listening, not listening. Her deal might be a crap deal but it was her deal, so there. And no, she didn’t fancy working over Christmas because there was still loads of time left and she had things to do at home with Philip. She was already in conversations with the producers of I’m a Celebrity for next year’s show, and Ronseal wanted her to do an advert promoting a new product called Completely Useless.
Long before the end, metal body parts began to drop off the prime minister and all that remained was a mouth opening and closing, saying “let me be clear”. There was some small salvation at hand though. Unable to resist snatching a late own goal, Corbyn used a point of order to table the meaningless censure motion he had wisely dropped earlier on. Even if it got debated, it would carry no weight and wouldn’t take place until the new year at the earliest. By which time it would have been even more pointless. But he always had been a sucker for a futile gesture.
Meanwhile, the country burned. And Westminster prepared to go on holiday for two weeks.