People's Vote 18 November 2018 | 16:46

Brexit Deal-Watch 5: Magical thinking at the edge of the abyss

18 November 2018 16:46

At the start of the week that will culminate in the EU council of ministers on Sunday, the book you need to read (if you haven’t already) is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). Shattered by the sudden death of her husband, the great essayist found herself  ‘thinking as small children think’, focused, against all logic and reason, upon ‘bringing him back.’

Magical thinking is prevalent because it is useful. It is a part of grief, though only a part. It is also, at a much less emotionally profound level, essential to the practice of politics – especially when the politicians that we have are conspicuously unequal to the scale of a particular national challenge.

This is what is happening now, in the midst of the great Brexit crisis – a period of turbulence about which, I guarantee, future historians will write with appalled astonishment. They will marvel at the extent to which, confronted with a huge task, our political class took collective refuge in delusion.

What is Labour up to? You might think that an Opposition party that polled 40 per cent in last year’s general election, confronted with a flailing Prime Minister and a government quite unable to negotiate a satisfactory deal with Brussels, would be stepping up to the plate. But you’d be wrong. In an interview with Sky’s Sophie Ridge, Jeremy Corbyn could not say how he would vote in a fresh referendum. He insisted that Labour would negotiate a better agreement with EU – but not how, with what incentives and pressures, or with what goal in mind (other than a ‘social Europe’). Labour sometimes claims that it can force a general election (not easy under the rules set by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011), and persuade the EU to renegotiate a more palatable deal – all before the end of March. In other circumstances, its spokesmen suggest that it could do all this as a minority government – if only May would  have the decency to step aside. It is terribly important to remember that Labour used to be a serious party.

So the Tories are serious? Not a bit of it. Westminster politics is presently like a new reality TV show: Britain’s Next Top Clown. The PM, also interviewed by Sky, appears to believe that the Commons will come round to her disastrous deal before the parliamentary vote scheduled for early December – though the reasons for her confidence are utterly mysterious. The 585-page deal pulls off the remarkable feat of annoying just about everyone – uniting Remainers and Leavers in the view that it is worse than the status quo.

Does she have any friends? Not many. The so-called ‘Famous Five’ – Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Chris Grayling – have stayed in Cabinet with the explicit goal of steering her towards a better deal. Again, not one of them has explained why Brussels should suddenly bend to their will, with only a week to go until the EU summit. But such are the times we live in. Notionally serious politicians have persuaded themselves that their personal decisions – the decisions, in most cases, of middle-ranking Cabinet ministers – will have an appreciable effect in 27 other national capitals. Where to start? Best not to, probably.

Will there be a leadership contest? Not unless May is sacked by her own MPs. In spite of many ill-informed articles claiming the contrary, the Tory Party rules no longer allow a ‘leadership challenge’. The incumbent must first be voted out in a motion triggered by 15 per cent of Tory MPs – in this case, 48. So far, about 25 such letters have been sent in and publicly-confirmed. Dominic Raab, who resigned as Brexit Secretary last week, has been parading himself as a potential contender. This will certainly goad Boris Johnson and others into what promises to be a pretty unsavoury beauty contest. But, as each prospective successor to May struts on the political stage, ask yourself this question: is he or she really more likely to get a better deal for the UK in the time available? When is the political class going to recognise that a People’s Vote is the only way to break the impasse?

Don’t hold your breath, though. Magical thinking is a potent force – especially when you are staring into the abyss.