Sometime in the 1950s, I remember going to see Peter Pan. It was a Christmas treat organised by the Cadoxton Conservative Club for the children and grandchildren of members (my grandfather was a staunch member). We were taken to the theatre in a fleet of double-decker buses, and each child was given a bag of fruit â€“ an apple, an orange, and an over-ripe banana come to mind. (As an aside, given that Barry Docks was the port of entry for most of the UKâ€™s bananas in those days, I never really understood why they were over-ripe, but thatâ€™s not really relevant here. It must be a parable for something, though.)
One of the dramatic moments was when Tinkerbellâ€™s light started to fade, and we all had to shout very loudly that we believed in fairies in order to save her life. The shouting wasnâ€™t loud enough at first, so we had to do it again and again until Tinkerbell recovered to full health and the show could continue. In later years, of course, I came to realise that it didnâ€™t matter how loudly we shouted – full recovery was pre-scripted into the show.
This week, the Prime Minister has told us how much she believes in Brexit, but to date she hasnâ€™t shouted loudly enough to convince the members of her own party. Somehow, however loudly she shouts it, I doubt that it will be believed by many of them. Itâ€™s not only her own belief that matters, naturally; for
Tinkerbell Brexit to recover requires all of us to proclaim our true belief from the rooftops. Indeed, if we fail to shout loudly enough then, according to the Brexiteers, the failure of Brexit will be our fault. Success or failure depends solely on the strength of our belief. In Neverland, where children never grow up, itâ€™s the way things work; only adults realise that the outcome of the story actually depends on the author, not the audience.
Birmingham this week has been like a pale copy of Neverland. Boris Johnson did a better job of pretending to be Peter Pan than did Theresa May; he had more of the audience shouting out in support of their conviction than she is likely to get this afternoon. She still doesnâ€™t look like a true believer in anything much except that she should be in charge â€“ something else which makes her pale in comparison to Boris, who is more convincing on that score as well. But what neither of them â€“ to say nothing of their audience â€“ seem to understand is that the outcome will be shaped by the script, not by the devoutness of the audience. And the script is largely being written elsewhere.
It must be comforting for them to be able to escape from the real world to a place where they can fly and where none of this is a problem at all, just as long as they can persuade us all to believe in fairies. However, the script (over which they have absolutely no control) requires them to reconnect with reality eventually, and Michel Barnier doesnâ€™t need to ape the crocodile by swallowing his clock for the rest of us to hear it ticking away loudly in the background.