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The torture of Theresa May

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Britain's Prime Minister is being stretched to the extremes by ardent Brexiteers and Remainers

Now is the time for all good citizens to put their elected politicians on the rack.

Torture is what tyrants visited upon real or presumed enemies among their own people.

But subjecting their leaders to prolonged public humiliation has come to be a default position among democracies.

None knows this better than Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May.

The rack was an invention popular in Europe among rulers and their enforcers, in use from antiquity to the 18th century.

It stretched a victim's limbs, causing excruciating pain and even tearing them from the body. Its use was declared illegal in Britain in the early 17th century but it is now being practised (in a non-physical form) on Mrs May as competing factions in her own party seek to stretch her this way and that.

Now the stretching is exerted by ardent Brexiteers, including some in her own Cabinet, who wish to crash out of the European Union, even with no deal; and by the Remainers who wish her to craft a Brexit as near as possible to the position Britain enjoyed when a member.

Mrs May's enemies on the Brexit side forced a party vote of confidence on her last week.

She won, with 200 parliamentarians supporting her but with 117 against - a "significant" number, as she acknowledged.

She then set off for Brussels, yet again, to plead for more concessions to allow her to get her Brexit plan through Parliament.

Her plea to her fellow leaders fell on deaf ears. There is a faint hope of further clarifications, but it appears that the EU's firm position is no more negotiations.

A "no-deal" Brexit, widely seen as a disaster, is now clearly possible - even likely.

The British, especially the English political temper, simply cannot rise to an enthusiastic embrace of the EU.

The most Britons will likely tolerate would be the continuation of a relationship, which allowed opt-outs of membership of the euro and the Schengen no-passport zone.

Nor is Britain the exception, which it is often assumed to be.

The triumph of the Italian populists in March this year showed that a state once thought to be the most enthusiastic in Europe for the Union suddenly swung Eurosceptic - proof that the EU had been embraced by the political, intellectual and much of the middle class but had not gripped the imagination of the majority.

But it is Mrs May who continues to be stretched to the extremes of Britain's two camps and who cannot craft a compromise, which could receive a majority in the House of Commons.

She attracts praise for her stamina and courage, even from a few opponents. But most, along with the news media, simply criticise her as they watch the torture.

It is inevitable. For most of the British, the membership of a Union still pledged to the ultimate goal of a federal state of Europe - which many European politicians want - is unattractive. Some argue it is too soon or simply impractical to create such a state, and the more passionate argue it would be a kind of tyranny.

Mrs May took British politics' top job after the long-running division on the EU, suppressed for decades, found an outlet through the 2016 referendum.

The citizens spoke, then said to the politicians: Do something. Get us out.

She and her party were left with the task of unpicking 45 years of laws, regulations and habits, while trying to keep the country together and get a deal through Parliament.

It has so far proven a task too heavy. And so the racking must continue till she, and perhaps her party, are torn limb from political limb. - REUTERS

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.