You have to wonder if there are people in the British parliament who believe that if the House of Commons voted to rule out death, the Grim Reaper would be forced to recognise the strength of its conviction.
It is possible to imagine the TV interview after the vote: “I think when Death sees the unity within the Conservative party around eternal life, he will be forced to come back to the table,” the chairman of the Mortality Research Group would tell the BBC. “This is a clear message to Death from the UK that it is time to put aside his scythe.”
On Wednesday, having twice vetoed the only deal on the table, MPs voted to reject a no-deal Brexit as if the mere fact of doing so magicked away that outcome. On Thursday they will almost certainly vote to delay the Brexit date, even though that is entirely up to the rest of the EU and not a given.
Finally — and most comically — some MPs attempted to resurrect the so-called Malthouse Compromise, a series of fantasy proposals around which Conservatives tried to unite even though it had been rejected by the EU. Its champions insisted a vote for these plans would “have to be taken seriously by Brussels”.
All these high points from a chamber which often mistakenly styles itself “the mother of parliaments” underscore the UK’s detachment from external events, forces and opinions. Away from talks overseen by Theresa May, Tory ideas and demands have been designed almost entirely in a vacuum, with no effort to understand the other, stronger side of the negotiations.
What all this week’s votes will not have done is unite parliament around a workable alternative. It cannot be said often enough that simply stating opposition to no deal does not prevent it. An alternative may yet follow. For all the prime minister’s unease, the notion of holding indicative votes to see if MPs can find a majority for an alternative workable plan may now be unavoidable. Support for the so-called Norway option of remaining in the single market, permanent membership of a customs union or even holding a second referendum may soon be tested.
It is possible that events may run away from Mrs May. The House may unite around an alternative, and a second referendum on her plan is certainly an option.
Yet some fundamental facts are unchanged. Aside from the customs union it is not clear there is a majority for any other option. Even after two of the most thumping defeats in Commons history, Mrs May plans to return for a third effort next week. For there is a second consideration, namely that it is very hard to see how the government can hold together while carrying through legislation on any of the softer options. As one MP noted: “This government cannot legislate for Norway. We would be dependent entirely on [Labour leader] Jeremy Corbyn. It would pull us apart.”
Mrs May is already stretching the elastic of her party to its limits. Asked to predict what would happen on Wednesday before the no deal vote, one ex-minister replied: “The PM and cabinet are going to vote with the opposition against the Conservative party.”
The solidarity of the party is a minor concern in the wider scheme of things, but it is not a secondary issue to Mrs May or her party. As long as they cling to power, therefore, it cannot be irrelevant to the country.
This is why even the second defeat for her plan is still not the end of it. The deal cannot be buried until something else replaces it and her control of parliamentary time allows her to keep trying. The small solace from Tuesday’s vote was that she regained the backing of several noted diehards including David Davis, who resigned as Brexit secretary to oppose her deal. She calculates that the more parliament leans towards a long delay or a softer Brexit, the faster the other hardliners will get back on board.
Incredibly, Mrs May, the least politically agile premier in modern time, is still in office. She survives by granting free votes and surrendering all authority over her party and cabinet. She is still a long way from victory but hers remains the only currently viable plan, and one behind which Tories can ultimately just about unite.
For all her numerous shortcomings, in Tory eyes Mrs May’s true crime may be that she forced her party to look outside the vacuum and to engage with the real world. The reason so many of them hate her deal is because it shows that their perfect Brexit does not exist. That is like asking a child to accept that Santa Claus is actually your parents. Tories will not forgive her for shattering their illusions, but they may yet be forced to bend to her will.