We are being trolled by a prime minister who is prepared to drive a nation into the abyss to preserve the cohesion of the Conservative party. Like a partner who perennially hints at a romantic three-course meal and a possible popping of the question, only to serve up beans on toast, Theresa May’s latest national address was a huge anticlimax. She provided no exit routes out of a building she has set alight, merely attacking a parliament she forced the electorate to vote for less than two years previously.
It is the most basic statement of political reality to say that Britain’s national crisis has been manufactured by the Conservatives, but it’s one that needs repeating in a media environment rigged in favour of the right. A generation-long Tory power struggle and the disastrous attempts to navigate it by David Cameron and his successor have brought Britain to its knees. The narrative over the coming days will be that the onus is on Labour to accept May’s deal – a deal both remainers and leavers are united in judging to be terrible – or condemn Britain to no deal.
But while the parliamentary arithmetic does not favour a second referendum – almost no Tory MPs want it, and neither do dozens of Labour MPs in leave seats – there is a majority for a softer Brexit: a permanent customs union and close alignment with the single market. That is an outcome vetoed by the prime minister, not because it’s bad for the country – objectively it would better protect the economy, jobs and the Northern Ireland peace process – but because it risks formally splitting the Tories. A nation and its citizens are prisoners of the Tory psychodrama.
The demagoguery of the Tory press, whether over immigration or Brexit, helped pave the way for Britain’s current plight. “Steel of the New Iron Lady”, proclaimed the Daily Mail two years ago; “May to EU: give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed”, the Times bellowed. Without such distortion, the current debacle would never have happened; it must now be properly challenged. For instance, Jeremy Corbyn has been savaged for walking out of May’s cross-party talks because of the presence of Chuka Umunna, de facto leader of the Independent Group, a private company rather than a political party, a structure that conveniently allows it to hide donations because transparency is so “old politics”.
A more valid criticism of Corbyn is even turning up in the first place. Labour was stung by the backlash when it previously refused to hold formal discussions with May; the pressure, of course, is to appear statesmanlike at times of national crisis. But these meetings are a waste of time, a desperate PR stunt by a flailing government. As one Plaid Cymru attendee put it, the meeting was a “tick-box exercise” and May offered nothing new. A responsible media would hold the government to account for scheduling time-wasting meetings instead of offering solutions to the crisis, rather than denouncing opposition politicians for walking out of them.
So what next? Pressure must be exerted on May to soften her deal; it’s notable that the European council president Donald Tusk has already suggested that Labour’s plans could break the deadlock. If Britain heads towards a “common market 2.0” solution – remaining within the customs union and single market – as Labour backbenchers such as Lucy Powell argue, freedom of movement will continue, and Labour must make the passionate pro-migrant argument it has, sadly, failed to make since 2016. But it is hard not to conclude that, whatever the outcome of this leg of the Brexit farce, we are approaching the season finale.
Labour has long championed a general election, to the point where some party figures fretted it became their only message with cut-through. It will surely become the only way out. If May forces through a package that most oppose under threat of no deal, it will create great bitterness on all sides, not least from the DUP propping her up. If it’s a long extension, the price to be paid may be an election. If it’s no deal, turmoil may force the government out. If May is deposed, her successor will come under overwhelming pressure to go to the country.
Labour was mocked for its focus on a general election, but whatever happens this house surely cannot stand. The social upheaval of the 1970s caused by the economic disorder and breakdown of the postwar order was used by the Tories to associate Labour with chaos for a generation. This time, there can be no doubt that the Tories’ partisan games have plunged us all into the mire. A near-decade of Tory rule has brought nothing but chaos: until it ends, Britain has a long way to fall before it hits the bottom.
• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist