I don’t like to drink when I’m eating. Few people can understand this and most will urge me to accept something, anything - ‘What about just a small glass/soft drink/cup of tea?’ - rather than watch me die of thirst. Waiters, especially American waiters, assume that I’ve got it wrong. I couldn’t possibly mean not even water, so they ask me again, hoping that I will give a less bizarre answer. Posing the same question in a variety of ways can sometimes be useful for clarity. But the assumption that instead of ‘Would you like a drink with that?’ I have heard ‘Can I interest you in a giant shoehorn?’ is both tedious and frustrating.
This is how the UK parliament must feel at the moment, as Mrs May presents her EU deal again and again with only negligibly different content and/or shoulder pads each time. The answer she gets is, ‘We said no at the start so why are you still asking?’ Perhaps May’s headmistressy style was acquired by the teenage Theresa while attending Holton Park Girls’ Grammar in the early 1970s, when non-conformism began with plucked eyebrows and ended in premarital sex. (I remember my mother in those days denouncing her niece who went horse riding one Saturday and came back pregnant. That was offbeat, even for the seventies.)
May’s tenure as Home Secretary and the role’s inevitably close association with the Police and crime are also likely to have further developed her liking for rules, protocols, red lines…and doing as one’s told. She has informed us throughout the Brexit negotiations that this is what a modern politician looks like. She used words like strong, stable and er, difficult. It’s true that an inflexible leader can often get what they want by sheer force, but shouldn’t we expect more than this Primarkian governance in which short-term wins beat long-term satisfaction?
The situation makes me wish for a bit of contra proferentum, the legal principle that translates as ‘against the draftsman’. It can be used to interpret a contract against the party that composed the original wording (who have already had their chance to set the boundaries), thus providing some parity for the contractor (who has not). If the UK is the contractor and the EU the client, parliamentary trust in the fairness of the Withdrawal Agreement has still to be established, and no-one has even signed the damn purchase order yet.
Like the tale of King Solomon, two mothers, one disputed baby and a sword, contra proferentum offers protection from the sneakier party. As does the proverbial ‘I cut, you choose’, in which one of two contingents splits a cake in half for the other to have first dibs on their slice, thus dispensing simple justice to counter human opportunism. Proverbs don’t have much of a place in 21st century bargaining, but we’re now at the stage where the cleaner’s been dragged into the agency’s brainstorming session because the creatives have run out of ideas. The solution clearly lies elsewhere.
When the repercussions of May’s deal cleave the country into four and its reputation into mincemeat, its authors will be long gone - and unaccountable. Remainers might blame David Cameron for initiating this chaos but I doubt that he suffers much retribution beyond a few stares in Waitrose car park, and that’s mostly when he fills the boot with disposable rather than reusable carrier bags. Instead of continually rephrasing the same message, couldn’t someone in power simply apply some old-fashioned wisdom to settle the crisis?