I tuned in to BBC Parliament, to watch the Prime Minister’s statement and subsequent questions but had to abandon it after two hours, fearing a loss of the will to live. To judge by the theatrical sighs from The Chair, Mr Speaker Bercow was feeling much the same. While it is no doubt an inflexible rule of the Internet that one should never express any sympathy for politicians, especially ministers, one could not help but feel for David Cameron having to repeat time and again his fundamental arguments to backbenchers who seemed not to register or care about the basically simple points he had made. And it must be even worse for the rest of the government Front Bench. They have to sit there saying nothing, not nodding off, not fiddling with their phones, when they no doubt have a pile of work back at the office. It must be agony. No wonder they all looked like their Steve Bell caricatures. In a normal workplace this would be regarded as risibly inefficient.
No contest on the arguments. The PM was at his most articulate and amiable. Most of the “Leave” crew (or “Outers” as they now seem to be called) were as ancient as they were grumpy, and many muffed what might possibly have been sound, or at least intelligible, points. One managed the masterstroke of talking up the Leave campaign by listing who had been at the Leave launch – and surely many people would have seen the list and thought: “here’s an organisation which has managed to bring together all the British politicians you would absolutely not want to trust.”
But half the parliamentary Conservative Party supports it.
Can the Conservative Party survive this next few months? It’s not an organism prone to splitting – was the last time the Repeal of the Corn Laws? – but you can’t help but wonder.
Jeremy Corbyn, incidentally, was terrible. Petulant, long-winded, muddled. His backbenchers oozed a contemptuous silence. Tim Farron was grim too – you can’t make an impassioned plea if you gabble and keep your hand in your pocket.
Months of this stuff will be agonising for us all. The polls won’t help to tell us what’s really going on, for four reasons: (1) No one trusts them after the General Election debacle; (2) this is reinforced by the fact that telephone and online polls are showing big differences in results; (3) as UK Polling Report has pointed out, Northern Ireland isn’t included in opinion polls but the nationalist community is very heavily pro-EU, and turnout is always high there, so NI could swing a close vote; (4) the polls don’t cover expatriates but they have votes too, and it would be a surprise if the expats in Europe were “Outers”. But maybe, just maybe, it will, like the Scottish referendum, all eventually turn into a grown-up debate about what the UK as a nation (or a union of nations) wants to be.