When Cnut sat on the beach and told the tide to stop, he didnâ€™t actually think for one moment that it would obey him; he was just trying to prove that he didnâ€™t have quite as much power as his courtiers seemed to believe. In similar vein, when Theresa May says that no new Brexit referendum will be held â€œin any circumstancesâ€�, could she just be trying to demonstrate (not that she really needs to) the extent to which she is not in control of events either? Because, as sure as eggs is eggs (or perhaps as sure as â€œBrexit means Brexitâ€� to use her own terminology), there are a whole host of potential circumstances in which the decision becomes no longer hers to make. Although assigning probabilities to events is a fraught exercise, the probability that she wonâ€™t be the one taking the decision seems to be growing almost daily.
On the whole, Iâ€™d prefer to believe that she is trying, Cnut-style, to demonstrate her own lack of power or control, largely because Iâ€™d prefer to live in a state where I believed that the head of the government retained at least a tenuous grip on reality. But all the evidence, based on previous behaviour, suggests that she genuinely believes that she is currently, and will remain, in a position to simply rule out a second referendum. Worse, the same evidence suggests that she believes that, having ruled it out, the issue will simply go away. The problem with that, as the Chequers debacle demonstrated, is that she canâ€™t even keep her own cabinet in line, let alone the rest of the country.
The phrase â€œin any circumstancesâ€� is a dangerous one for a politician to use in an uncaveated form. Itâ€™s probably safer for us to assume that it should have been followed by â€œthat I can currently foreseeâ€�. So, not this week then.