“Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?” Constantine Cavafy famously asked, over a century ago. “Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?”
Cavafy’s Ancient Romans were paralysed in fearful anticipation of an implacable force advancing on the city gates, not knowing if its arrival would bring good or ill. The eerie atmosphere of the poet’s masterpiece Waiting for the Barbarians is the nearest thing to the feeling around Westminster at the start of six months that will probably be the most turbulent and significant in modern British political history.
Accept no speculations: with 200 days to go until Brexit, no one can really say how things will turn out. In the week that Westminster has been back from summer recess, I’ve asked opposition and Government MPs, civil servants and Downing Street staffers for predictions.
Whatever hazy scenarios they sketch out, every answer has ended with a version of: “I don’t know, what do you think?”
Even if they don’t admit it, everyone knows the Government’s Chequers strategy is an exercise in going through the motions. Even in the current climate, I was surprised by how casually one Conservative MP slipped into the conversation that “the Prime Minister isn’t really in charge.”
The only question is how complete Brussels’ rejection of Chequers will be, and whether its tone will be gentle enough to allow Theresa May to survive in Number 10. Meanwhile, after decades of agitating, Brexiteers have realised they have no alternative plan. Their insistence on ideological purity means they can only say “no”.
All that’s left for all sides is to assemble in the city square and wait for Michel Barnier to deliver an ultimatum. Then, at least, they can decide whether to accept it, or fight.
Like Cavafy’s barbarians, its arrival will be “a kind of solution”.