The Devil and Theresa May

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The New York Sun

Of Prime Minister May’s offer to quit as prime minister if the Commons approves her Brexit deal . . . well, it hasn’t happened yet (nor any other of eight proposals). Yet we haven’t heard anything so tempting since Stephen Vincent Benet’s story of the Devil and Daniel Webster. Mrs. May is no further down on her luck than Farmer Jabez Stone was when he pricked his finger and struck his deal with the Devil.

There’s no shortage of Devils as the Brexit drama nears its denouement. One candidate would be the speaker of the Commons, John Bercow. Then, again also, too, there is the whole barrel of Beelzebubs in Brussels — any one of whom, from the Horned Tusk of the European Council to the Forked Juncker of the European Commission, could be Mr. Scratch, the name used by Benet’s Devil.

It would be nice to be able to think of Mrs. May as the hero. What other premier can one think of so committed to something that she offered to step down if her foes would only agree to it? It’s hard, though, to cast Mrs. May in any heroic role. It was she who betrayed the Brexit referendum by plunging into negotiations with Europe before Brexit had been secured. She, we think, still opposes Brexit.

That apparently is not going to stop Boris Johnson, the most ambitious of Mrs. May’s foes, from taking her deal. Or so say the wires. That could yet lead to him being premier. By our lights he’s playing with brimfire. Things went well for Benet’s Jabez Stone, too, after he pricked his finger in exchange for a promise of seven years of good luck. He got another three before the Devil came for his due.

At that point, Farmer Stone fetched a lawyer, who — in Benet’s yarn — turns out to be the famed Daniel Webster of New Hampshire. The trial is one of the greatest scenes in America’s mythology. To get the trial, Webster agrees to let the Devil pick the jury. Mr. Scratch picks a panel that includes, among others, a loyalist to George III, a hostile Native American king, and a pirate. Almost as bad as Brussels.

The judge turns out to be John Hathorne, who presided at the witch trials in Salem. Maybe Speaker Bercow would play that part. Anyhow, so eloquent does Webster turn out to be, playing on patriotism and all the sunny uplands that, say, Boris Johnson once talked about, that the jury of rogues discovers a patriotic streak and rules against the Devil himself. That Webster, he could talk.

Webster presses his luck and forces the Devil to vow that until Doomsday he will lay off Jabez Stone, his heirs or assigns, or “any other New Hampshire man.” Hah! Just the sort of esprit Britain needs. What hero will emerge from the current fray? We’re too much of a Yank to know — except to hazard that it will be the man or woman who takes the patriotic line and holds out for the hard Brexit the voters asked for three years ago.

The New York Sun

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