Even the optimism of the 'pound whisperer' cannot save Theresa May from her no-deal Brexit crisis
Barnier’s optimism offers the sort of reassurance someone with a bullet in the abdomen would take from the triage nurse turning up with a two inch sticking plaster
Buy your dollars and book that trip to the Grand Canyon this instant because the pound, so I read, is “surging”. On the strength of Michel Barnier’s upbeat musings on the chances of a Brexit deal (or bits of one, including the Irish border) being agreed within six weeks, sterling soared, leapt, spiked and raced ahead against the dollar by an electrifying 0.4 per cent.
This is tremendous. OK, it doesn’t look much next to the 15 per cent downwards correction that greeted the referendum result. And against the euro, there appears to have been no movement at all.
But we didn’t get where we are today by looking towards Europe. The unbroken tale of post-war British foreign policy is the yearning to be junior Americans, not senior Europeans. So naturally the reports centre on that massively improved dollar exchange rate while virtually ignoring the stasis against the euro.
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Still, every little helps; a £3,000 holiday to the States will cost you £12 less at the time of writing than last night. That’s just enough for a bottle of supermarket own brand whisky if you want sanctuary from the terror in a cut-price alcoholic coma.
God love Barnier for trying to provide some escapism with encouraging words rather than high proof liquor. In the Slovenian town of Bled, he cited as realistic the idea that a withdrawal deal (not including trade, admittedly, but the trivial stuff can be sorted out later) could be done by the end of October.
I am convinced, and will defend the conviction until the high-security ward tailor is measuring me for the straitjacket, that Barnier chose Bled with subliminal messaging in mind. The message is that the self-inflicted Brexit wound can quickly be staunched. He could easily have opted for the Danish town of Bløødvillgushføreverberg. Instead, he opted for the past tense. You’ve been haemorrhaging sanity, GDP growth and global relevance for two and a bit years, he tells us in code. You bled. By Halloween, you will be bleeding no more.
Well, let’s see how that pans out. From this vantage point, under the desk with the own-brand Scotch, Barnier’s optimism offers the sort of reassurance someone with a bullet in the abdomen would take from the triage nurse turning up with a two-inch sticking plaster.
One appreciates Barnier’s efforts, under instruction from the EU27, to give Theresa May protection from the wannabe assassins on the benches behind and beside her. Like anyone of vaguely sound mind, he would prefer to coat his genitals with blood while swimming with piranhas than see Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg replace her. Happily, the odds against either doing so have receded, thanks to Boris’s typically nuanced “suicide vest” analogy, and to the revelation that Moggy’s European Research Group plans to use the phantasmal “Brexit dividend” to build a nuclear missile defence shield of the sort touted by Ronald Reagan after he developed Alzheimer’s.
So it is that, once again – though it may be yet another mirage in this Atacama of despair – May looks a little more secure.
But where surviving for the want of a credible successor is one thing, getting the Commons to vote for any Brexit deal, or none, is another. Lyndon Johnson said the art of politics is knowing how to count, but even with his legendary talents to flatter and bully he couldn’t conjure a winning equation from these parliamentary numbers. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, William Hague foresees the stalemate leading to a political and constitutional crisis on a scale unseen for centuries, and small wonder there. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, a supporting player to Moggy in the ERG revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, insists that at least 80 Tories will vote against any version of May’s Chequers proposal. In that case, it would take almost as many Labour MPs to ignore a three-line whip, designed to bring down the government, to pass it. That is unthinkable.
Meanwhile, Remainy ex-minister Nick Boles says that at least 40 Tories would join opposition parties to vote down no deal – if a vote is, in fact, required. Impressively, 18 months after the activation of Article 50, it remains legally obscure if the government would need parliamentary approval for that. But it would be an eccentric interpretation of that dream about restoring parliamentary sovereignty to allow the nightmare to unfold without it.
Staring bleakly at the impasse, under levels of stress no peacetime prime minister can have glimpsed before, May understandably seeks refuge in the escapist fantasy that her party might still get behind the Chequers plan that died at two days old. Somewhere in the multiverse, there must be parallel worlds where versions of Moggy, Boris and Iain Duncan-Smith are reasonablists who want to compromise in the national interest. If she can build a vessel capable of hopping to one of those (on the template of the “void ship” used by the Cult of Skaro daleks in Doctor Who, perhaps) splendid.
If not, and time is a little short, the only solution to this crippling deadlock is the one she has categorically ruled out, and will continue ruling out – until the moment that she doesn’t.
A second referendum, on both the fact of Brexit and its terms, would inevitably deepen the wound for a while. Without it, there aren’t enough anti-coagulants in the world to make the bleeding stop.
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