“Hard pounding this, gentlemen,” one of Theresa May’s predecessors once said. “Let us see who can pound longest.”
That was the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and the same grim spectacle is now unfolding in parliamentary form, as befits a great constitutional struggle with an uncertain outcome.
What a bombardment the Prime Minister endured, and as Jacob Rees-Mogg observed, this is the third time in ten days she has done so.
No wonder the combatants look grimmer and more strained than they did at the outset of the battle. It has developed into a war of attrition, in which the Prime Minister is said by expert judges to lack the numbers to prevail, yet in which she refuses to admit defeat.
May’s thin red lines grow thinner, indeed have faded, many of her adversaries would say, into shades of pink so faint they have become indistinguishable from the white flag of surrender which they confidently expect to see raised.
Yet May will not surrender. She continues to proclaim that hers is the only strategy which will work: “I can say to the House with absolute certainty that there is not a better deal available.”
Jeremy Corbyn observed, with some justice, that “the silence from most of the rest of the Cabinet is telling”. It is far from clear that her colleagues are standing shoulder to shoulder with her.
And what a weight of former Cabinet ministers opposed her from her own benches, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Boris Johnson, John Redwood, Michael Fallon and Owen Paterson among them.
But although these are heavy guns to face, none of them seemed, at least to this observer, to score a direct hit. When the debris fell back to earth and the smoke cleared, there she still was, still insisting on her compromise, even though, as Fallon objected, it is a “huge gamble” which guarantees no one what they want.
“In the Prime Minister’s lexicon,” Angela Eagle (Lab, Wallasey) asked, “is smooth and orderly the new strong and stable?”
That shot landed, for as the nation saw during the general election, May is useless at responding to attacks on her addiction to pitifully banal forms of words.
But this is not a general election, and in the present campaign she has the strength of her weakness, which is that her banalities may start to drive her critics to distraction. Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the European Reform Group, warned that the Spanish are after Gibraltar and the French are after our fish, and asserted that May’s deal “will never get through, and even if it did, which it won’t…”
In other words, neither he nor anyone else knows for certain whether she will get her proposed deal through the Commons. It looks bad for her at the moment, and her own supporters this afternoon seemed glummer than they did.
But the great and minor guns which opened up against her were far from united. Can the No Dealers make common cause with the People’s Voters (who incidentally are starting to become insufferably tedious in their own special way) so as to defeat the Prime Minister, or when it comes to it on 11th December, will they be too frightened of playing into each other’s hands?
“Two more weeks of this,” one of my colleagues in the Commons press gallery groaned. Hard pounding, and we shall see who can pound longest.