If Theresa May has a brief moment of respite from Brexit, she could do worse than hide away in some cosy corner of 10 Downing Street and read (or, perhaps re-read) A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens’ novel of intertwined lives in Paris and London during the French Revolution.
She is likely to find that the tale of blood, revolt, tears, and self-sacrifice resonates with what is happening in those two cities today.
She might take comfort from the book’s opening lines: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...” and reflect on the fact that, as in Dickens’ famous novel, both cities are in turmoil, driven by political events.
In Paris, president Emmanuel Macron has had to make a humiliating U-turn on fuel taxes, while in London prime minister May has been forced into a climbdown on revealing in full to the House of Commons legal advice on the implications of the withdrawal agreement she and her negotiators reached with the EU.
In both cases, these particular difficulties were largely of their own making.
Macron’s haughty and disdainful dismissal of the effect of increased taxes and higher cost of living on ordinary people sparked the worst riots that Paris has seen in more than 50 years.
In scenes reminiscent of the barricades from a stage production of Les Miserables, demonstrators took to the streets of the city to protest against the president and his domestic policies.
In what appears to be his ‘let them eat cake’ moment (a phrase attributed to Marie Antoinette before she encountered Madame Guillotine), Macron has, up to the last moment, been ignoring the growing discontent while travelling abroad to pontificate about things like an EU army.
In London, May showed her propensity to dismiss genuine misgivings within her own parliamentary party by refusing — until forced — to give a full account of her Attorney General’s advice.
Both of these major miscalculations should be a lesson for Leo Varadkar as the growing likelihood is that May’s plan will not make it through the House of Commons and that, therefore, the Brexit deal is doomed. In the current climate, perhaps we should think in terms of A Tale Of Three Cities, as Dublin is in the mix as well and the Taoiseach, in common with May and Macron, is refusing to face reality.
The Government has yet to publish its plans for a no-deal Brexit.
It is essential that it do so now as there is more at stake than policing a hard border. The UK remains Ireland’s main trading partner and, as Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told the Dáil’s select committee on budgetary oversight, a no-deal Brexit would be “a very significant shock to the Irish economy”. It would also be a very significant shock to the future of Theresa May and her government, but the political repercussions will not be confined to London.
We are living in a revolutionary era and politicians must be ready for the worst of times as well as the best of times.