Overwork has led to the Prime Minister becoming deluded about the very nature of her own Brexit deal. She must take a step back for all our sake, says Sean Walsh.

Is the Dinner Party Establishment falling out with itself? On his vanity show the other day Andrew Marr was involved in a curious spat with his guest Shami Chakrabati over which of them is the real democrat. The obvious answer (neither of them) was lost in a mutual fit of the vapours. It cannot be pleasant being patronised by a self-regarding representative of the privileged left. But to her credit, Ms Chakrabati acquitted herself well in the face of his peculiar condescension.

Now let us be measured in our sympathy. Both Marr and Chakrabati are players in the wider movement against the decision of the only legitimate “people’s vote”. Some schadenfreude is permissible when Islington goes to war with Hampstead. And while fighting each other they are not lying to the rest of us.

The political-media elite is prostituting itself in service of several untruths. It has resorted to the dark arts. Yet there is no wizardry that can transform the “backstop” announced in May’s Withdrawal Agreement into anything other than an immediate principle of negotiation after March 2019. Similarly, no alchemical innovation can avoid the fact that to sell out Northern Ireland in a different way from the way she intends to sell out the rest of us is a violation of the Belfast Agreement. And no “magical thinking” will serve to permanently avoid the conclusion that to replace a political relationship which we can leave with a form of subservience which we cannot is an act of national suicide.

These elites are composed of real people and are therefore collectively susceptible to the same vulnerabilities and imperfections as all of us. When you undertake to systematically dissemble and find yourself getting away with it, it’s natural for cognitive dissonance to kick in. An occasional episode of Marr-tetchiness is to be expected; it isn’t easy being evil. The devil is in the habit of cashing the cheque. Sometimes you need to blow off steam.

Except apparently Mrs May doesn’t. We are now being encouraged to support the withdrawal agreement by overlooking it completely and reflecting instead on the Stakhanovite diligence of the Prime Minister herself. It’s not about her, except that it is. We should agree to being sold out because the person doing the selling out has worked hard at it. She watches the occasional episode of NCIS before, suitably refreshed, she comes up with new ways to intensify the betrayal.

I’m not sure that a capacity for hard work in a leader is necessary to be admired. Diligence is not one of those things that the philosophers describe as “good in itself”.  Stalin, it is true, was quite prepared to stay up until all hours if a death warrant needed to be signed. People living under his yoke might have preferred he’d opted instead for an early night. The Pharisees took the Ten Commandments and worked hard at constructing a system of laws that lost sight of what the whole thing was really about. Just as they took what was simple and concise and transformed it into something ugly and cumbersome, so May has taken the simple principle that “we want to be free” and has dissolved it in 600 pages of obfuscation and verbiage. It takes a lot of hard work to effect a transformation quite as offensive as that.

Diligence, surely, is laudable only insofar as it is in service of the good. The trick is to prevent what counts as “the good” becoming lost in the flurry of activity for the sake of activity.

Aristotle argued that “leisure is the first principle of action”. What he meant by this is that action not shaped by reflection is likely to be detached from any sense of what is actually worth doing; and that the capacity for reflection is sharpened by the practice of doing things purely for their own sake. This is what GK Chesterton meant when he wrote of the “serious play of children”. Children at play will generate worlds ordered according to the requirements of the imagination. These play-worlds serve as rehearsals for participation in the ghastly real-world they inherit from the rest of us. They are spiritually and morally formative. The Labour politician Denis Healey spoke often of the need for people in public life to have a hinterland: an adult play-world detached from the grubby contingencies of political life. Without that, he suggested, politicians go mad (Tony Benn had no such hinterland, you do the math).

Mrs May might genuinely believe that her Brexit strategy is somehow consistent with leaving the EU, just as the Pharisees genuinely believed that allowing the Temple to be used as a centre of commerce was consistent with the Mosaic Law. Minds worn down by too much work become vulnerable to the most astonishing delusions. Mrs May needs to dial down the diligence, for the sake of all of us.

Incidentally, have you ever watched NCIS? It’s centred around a humourless leader surrounded by acolytes too scared to call him out on his stubbornness.

I can’t imagine why she’s such a fan.

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