Richard North, 26/02/2019  

The soap opera has taken over big time, with the legacy media lapping up the detail in an orgy of self-satisfied glee. Never mind the issue: this is Westminster at its most trivial, giving endless entertainment to the bubble and leaving the rest of the nation indifferent at a level which would make an ice age the epitome of glowing warmth.

Still in Sharm el Sheik, the prime minister has been fending off inane questions with inane answers, the exchange being perfectly reasonable to anyone who wants to fill in time (and space) between adverts, but of little use to all those millions of people and thousands of businesses who actually need to know what is going to happen in five weeks.

As it stands, we have to be content with Mrs May's assurances that a deal is "within our grasp" and "a delay means delay" which won't solve anything. "It just delays the point at which you come to that decision", she says, thus demonstrating that we are not – contrary to the assertions of Dutch prime minister Rutte – sleepwalking to anywhere.

Even if, according to European Council president Donald Tusk, delay is a "rational decision", given that the folks back in Westminster can't decide anything except when to put in their expenses claims, Mrs May was "clear" that she will be able to avoid a no-deal scenario and bring home a deal that the MPs could approve, in between filling in their expenses claims.

Meanwhile, the Mail is insisting that as many as 15 ministers have threatened to quit the government in "an extraordinary mass revolt" during what is described as a secret meeting. Never mind that it can't have been that secret otherwise the paper wouldn't know anything about it.

In this not-so-secret secret meeting, we are told that "23 dissidents" met last night to discuss how to stop a no-deal scenario, with three ministers saying they were prepared to back a Commons move by rebel MPs to force the prime minister to seek a Brexit delay if her deal is voted down.

And, although she hasn't said anything publicly, and is currently telling everyone that a delay is a delay and won't solve anything, the Mail is "revealing" that Mrs May is now ready to rule out a no-deal Brexit after all.

Nevertheless, how exactly the prime minister plans to rule this out hasn't been officially revealed, any more than she has officially revealed that she is ruling it out. But, unofficially, people described as "allies" of the prime minister – confounding the rumours that she didn't have any – are themselves revealing that the Cabinet will discuss proposals this morning.

This, if we are to believe these revelations, could see the UK request a short extension of Article 50 of around two months, in the event that parliament does what it does best and votes down the deal on 12 March, in between signing off its expense claims.

No one, however, is revealing whether the EU-27 will be in the mood to agree to a two-month extension, when we have already learned that the "colleagues" are reluctant to entertain this option, as it just delays the inevitable, and puts us back in exactly the same position that we would have been on 29 March – notwithstanding that they could use the extra time to get the housekeeping sorted.

Just to keep the hacks entertained – if they didn't already have enough to be going on with - Jeremy Corbyn has stepped in with a cunning move that has his many detractors accusing him of "cynical betrayal" (is there any other sort?), after performing a U-turn and backing a second referendum, thus breaking a solemn manifesto vow by his party.

That said, there is nothing very clear about the nature of this referendum, but it is understood that it won't include an option to remain. Apparently, an "internal briefing paper" states that the choice would be between a "credible leave option" and something. A source close to Mr Corbyn says that the party would not force the public to choose between Mrs May's deal and remaining in the EU.

Apparently, though, God is on Corbyn's side, as witnessed by ex-deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine. He is of the view that a second referendum should be called because the Almighty had intervened and many of those who voted Brexit in 2016 had died – presumably leaving the survivors in favour of cuddling up with Mother Europe.

There is clearly a distinction here between God and David Davis, who merely thinks he's God – or the next best thing. He's boasting that he has the credentials to be leader of the Conservative Party, presumably so that he can lead us into the sunlit uplands that Mrs May seems to be struggling to reach.

For all that, it is unlikely that we will see Mr Davis in place by tomorrow, when a vote is due which would supposedly empower parliament to force a Brexit delay on the government if Mrs May has failed to get her deal passed by 13 March. This is the famous Cooper-Letwin amendment, which has assumed almost mystical properties.

Sadly, no one has broken it to these hopefuls that parliament has no power to force Mrs May to do any such thing and, even if she decided to approach the European Council for a delay, they could still say "no". The very worst (or best) that can happen is that the leader of the opposition tables another motion of no confidence which, if successful, could lead to a general election. And by the time that was over, we'd be out of the European Union by default – without a deal.

In terms of running down the clock, therefore, it would appear that Mrs May has already achieved her aim – if indeed that's what it was. She needs to do absolutely nothing between now and 29 March except hone her cue handling skills (much needed from the look of it), and we will be out of the evil empire without anyone even having to break a sweat.

Maybe, if this was properly realised, it might dawn on the MP collective that the only sure way to avoid a no-deal is to vote for the Withdrawal Agreement on 12 March. With one bound – assuming that the European Parliament also ratifies the deal – we will be into the transitional period and ready for another 21 months of bickering and uncertainty. What's there not to like?

Being only MPs, with a collective IQ that would struggle to match the turnout of a single amoeba, we can hardly expect them to cotton on to this simple truth, which means we'll have to watch some more tedious rituals in the Commons tomorrow, while the hacks hyperventilate over the implications, without ever understanding the issues they are reporting.

If today's the day though, when Mrs May is supposedly to have a gigantic showdown in her Cabinet, she must wish for the American system, where there is proper separation of powers between the legislature and the executive. Then she would not be so reliant on the Commons gene pool to meet her staffing needs. But there is always the option of sacking the rebels and hiring replacements from the Lords, bringing in new blood for the purpose.

Those ministers who think they have the prime minister in their grip may be overplaying their hands. Most of them are totally anonymous and no-one has ever heard of them – and cares less. These days, the only time one gets to know that someone was a minister is after they have resigned.

At least, though, we are getting the measure of the woman under whom they serve. Rachel Sylvester has been communing with a former cabinet secretary who tells her that Mrs May is "the worst prime minister - by a mile".

His view of our leader is that: "Her way of running the government is completely dysfunctional. On an issue like Brexit, you have got to find a solution that brings as many people on board as possible, but she's in the bunker. She has no authority, no powers of persuasion. The cabinet is hopelessly divided and she has no ability to unify them".

The growing sense of frustration within the government is then confirmed by an anonymous minister, who says: "There isn't the determined leadership and decision-making which could empower a prime minister over her cabinet. We as a country are a victim of this historically dysfunctional process".

Needless to say, as powerless spectators, we are the victims of this process, but separate enough from it to realise that the dysfunction is not confined to Downing Street. With just about every establishment institution having failed, we are in the grips of a historical nightmare where the political process as a whole no longer seems to function.

I suppose the last laugh goes to the anonymous authors of Article 50 who added in the default provision. That, at least, will force the pace and put an end to this particular nightmare, preparatory for the next. As the days pass, there is nothing at all to indicate that we are heading for anything other than a no-deal. The 29 March can't come quick enough – for this is worse than anything that we could possibly have imagined.

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