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This week the novelist received the Olof Palme prize for achievement in the spirit of the assassinated Swedish statesman. He reflects on how a lack of leadership today has allowed us to sleepwalk into Brexit

A range of emotions, not all of them beautiful, passed through my head at the moment when I was offered the Olof Palme prize.

I am not a hero. I am a fraud. I am being offered a medal for another mans gallantry. Decline.

I am not a frontline advocate for truth or human rights. I have not suffered for my writing. I have been handsomely rewarded for it.

Neither did I feel myself the equal of any of the three writers who have preceded me at this rostrum: Vclav Havel, whom I briefly knew and revered, and the intrepid Roberto Saviano, both of whom in separate ways became martyrs to their work. And Carsten Jensen, writer on world conflict and sharer of its anguish.

If I wanted further proof of my inadequacy, I had only to listen to Daniel Ellsbergs moving speech at this same rostrum just a year ago. Why didnt I ever copy secret documents and stop a war?

It was only when I set out to explore the life and work of Olof Palme, and entered his spell, and discovered that same affinity with him that Ellsberg had so eloquently described, that it seemed just possible I might not be quite such a bad fit after all.

Reading and thinking about Palme makes you wonder who you are. And who you might have been, but werent. And where your moral courage went when it was needed. You ask yourself what power drove him golden boy, aristocratic family, brilliant scion of the best schools and the best cavalry regiment to embrace from the outset of his career the cause of the exploited, the deprived, the undervalued and the unheard?

Was there, somewhere in his early life, as there is in the lives of other men and women of his calibre, some defining moment of inner anger and silent purpose? As a child he was sickly, and partly educated at home. He has the feel of a loner. Did his school peers get under his skin: their sense of entitlement, their contempt for the lower orders, their noise, their vulgarity and artlessness? Mine did. And no one is easier to hate than a contemptible version of oneself.

Graham Greene remarked that a novelist needed a chip of ice in his heart. Was there a chip of ice in Palmes heart? He may not have been a novelist, but there was art in him, and a bit of the actor. He knew that you cant make great causes stick without political power. And for political power, you definitely need a chip or two of ice.

Olof Palme was assassinated in 1986. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

The United States did not take lightly in those days, any more than it does now, being held to account by a nation it dismisses as tin-pot. And Sweden was a particularly irritating tin-pot nation, because it was European, articulate, cultured, rich, and white. But Palme loved being the irritant. Relished it. Relished being the outsider voice, the one that refuses to be categorised, the one that shouldnt be in the room at all. It brought out the best in him.

And now and then, I have to say, it does the same for me.

Its a long time since my post box contained estate agents brochures for deep shelters in the Nevada desert. You entered by way of a tumbledown shack, designed to look like an abandoned outside loo. An elevator swept you 200ft underground to a luxury apartment where you could hold out till Armageddon was safely over and normal services were resumed. And when the all clear was sounded and you came up the escalator, the only people left would be your rich friends and the Swiss.

So why isnt the threat of nuclear war today as present or terrifying to us as it was in Palmes day? Is it simply that the nuclear threat is so ubiquitous, so diffuse and irrational? North Korea? Isis? Iran? Russia? China? Or todays White House with its born-again evangelists dreaming of the Rapture? Better to invest our existential fears in things we understand: bushfires, melting icebergs, and the uncomfortable truths of Greta Thunberg.

But the cold war was anything but irrational. It was two players facing each other across a nuclear chessboard. And for all their clever spying, neither knew the first thing about the other.

John le Carr at a pro-EU rally, Parliament Square, London, in October 2019. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

I try to imagine how it was for Palme in those times: the shuttle diplomacy, the tireless reasoning with people locked into their positions and scared of their superiors. I was the lowest form of spy life, but even I got wind of contingency plans for outright nuclear war. If you are in Berlin or Bonn when the Russian tanks sweep over you, be sure to destroy your files first. First? What was second? And I doubt whether your chances would have been much rosier in Stockholm.

In Berlin, in August 1961, I look on as coils of Russian barbed wire are unrolled across the Friedrichstrasse checkpoint, otherwise known as Checkpoint Charlie. Intermittently, in the days that follow, I watch the Wall go up, one concrete block at a time. Do I lift a finger? No one did. And maybe that was the worst part of it: the oppressive sense of your own irrelevance.

But Palme refused to be irrelevant. He would make himself heard if it killed him, and perhaps in the end it did.

Its October 1962 and Cuban crisis time. I am a junior diplomat at the British embassy in Bonn and I have just moved into a new hiring beside the river Rhine. German decorators are painting the walls. Its a sunny autumn and I think I must have been on leave because I am sitting in the garden writing.

The blare of the builders transistor radio is drowned by the din of passing barges, until suddenly it is belting out the news of Kennedys ultimatum to Khrushchev: Turn back your missiles, Mr Chairman, or your country and mine will be at war or words to that effect. The painters politely excuse themselves, wash their brushes, and go home to be with their families at worlds end. I drive to the embassy in case theres work to be done. There isnt. So I drive home again and continue writing The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Richard Burton in the film of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). Photograph: Collectin Christophel/Alamy

So what was Palme doing while the Soviet fleet continued on its way to Cuba and the world waited dry-mouthed to see who blinked first? Until I knew better, I pictured him sitting head in hands in some lonely place, despairing. I am a failed peacemaker. My mediations have been in vain. If the world ends, its all my fault.

But he had no time for that stuff. He was in Stockholm, pressing for educational reform, bumping up Swedens international aid budget and picking up the pieces after Stig Wennerstrm, a senior Swedish air force officer, was exposed as a Soviet spy. And thats something thats too easy to forget about Palme the diplomat for world peace and nuclear disarmament: he had a country to run.

Spying? Palme? Theres been a lot of talk about it. As a young intern in Swedish intelligence, he had acquired an early taste for the black arts and it stayed with him for the rest of his political life. And who can blame him? When youre defending yourself on half a dozen home fronts; when youre sitting out the night on tedious committees; when a far right mob of hooligans is burning your effigy in the street and chucking darts at pictures of your face, what greater relief than to settle down comfortably with your spies and give yourself over to the consolations of intrigue?

And I am not at all surprised that in the midst of excoriating the Americans for the Vietnam war, Palme the pragmatist was reading secret American intelligence reports. After all, he had a country to protect.

Palme never saw the cold war end, but he experienced its worst years. And by the close of his life they had left their mark: testiness, distraction, impatience, battle fatigue. You only have to look at the last photographs to read the signs. You only have to hear the barely controlled anger breaking through his voice when he reads his statement on the bombing of Hanoi. I hear nervous advisers begging him not to use the forbidden G-word, genocide.

They wore you out, those American nuclear warriors. I have a particularly unpleasant memory and maybe so had Palme of the US governments twenty-something defence analysts who lived on rock music and Coca-Cola while they calculated to the last half-million or so how many of us would be turned to ash in a first strike.

It was their air of superiority that got to me, the we know better than you do about how youre going to die. I just couldnt warm to them. Did Palme have business with their Russian counterparts? I guess they were much the same.

And sometimes it was the sheer decency and good manners of Washingtons top warriors that wore you down. Good family men, I remember. Really decent people: touch football with their kids on Saturdays, church on Sundays. I met a few. And so, Im sure, did Palme. Well, theyd concede, they did do insomnia a bit. A nervous breakdown here and there, the odd broken marriage. And kids traumatised by what they picked up from the table talk, but that was just parental carelessness.

And Palme the determined non-combatant walked among them. Politely. Lawyer to lawyer. Man to man. And be sure never to mention the G-word, genocide.

As I continue to read and think my way through Palmes life, my sense of kinship becomes possessive. I want a Palme for my country, which in my lifetime hasnt produced a single statesman of his stamp. I want him now. Im not just a remainer. Im a European through and through, and the rats have taken over the ship, I want to tell him. Its breaking my heart and I want it to break yours. We need your voice to wake us from our sleepwalk, and save us from this wanton act of political and economic self-harm. But youre too late.

If Johnson and his Brexiteers had their way, it would be declared St Brexits Day. Church bells across the land would peal out the gladsome tidings from every tower. And good men of England would pause their stride and doff their caps in memory of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, Trafalgar, and mourn the loss of our great British empire. Empires dont die just because theyre dead.

We Brits are all nationalists now. Or so Johnson would have us believe. But to be a nationalist you need enemies and the shabbiest trick in the Brexiteers box was to make an enemy of Europe. Take back control! they cried, with the unspoken subtext: and hand it to Donald Trump, along with our foreign policy, our economic policy, our health service and, if they can get away with it, our BBC.

So Boris Johnson with our blessing has taken his place beside two other accomplished liars of our time: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. If Palme were trying to get the truth out of them, which of the three would he turn to? Or none of the above?

One day somebody will explain to me why it is that, at a time when science has never been wiser, or the truth more stark, or human knowledge more available, populists and liars are in such pressing demand.

But dont blame the Tories for their great victory. It was Jeremy Corbyns Labour party, with its un-policy on Brexit, its antisemitism and student-level Marxism-Leninism that alienated traditional Labour voters and left them nowhere to go. They looked to the left and didnt recognise their leader. They looked to the centre and there was nobody there. They were sick of Brexit and sick of politics, and probably as sick of Johnsons voice as I was. So they pinched their noses and voted for the least worst option. And actually, who can blame them?

Palme hated war, but I dont know how much of it he actually saw. A little goes a long way. Or it did for me.

My first cautious glimpse came when I visited Cambodia shortly before the American defeat. Forty years earlier, Palme had toured Southeast Asia and seen for himself the disastrous effect of French, British and American colonialism. By the time I got there, the disaster was wholly American-owned.

Phnom Penh is encircled. The taxi driver charges $30 to take you to the frontline. You want shooting? he asks. Yes, please, I want shooting. He parks, you walk the rest of the way. You get shot at and return to your taxi. On the road back through town to the hotel, children sit on the pavement selling bottles of petrol siphoned from abandoned cars.

At the edge of Phnom Penh an artillery battery is providing covering fire for an infantry attack against the invisible jungle enemy. Deafened by gunfire, children huddle round the guns, each waiting for his father to come back. They know that if he doesnt, his commanding officer will pocket his pay instead of reporting him dead.

Im in Sidon, South Lebanon, house guest of the Palestinian chief of fighters, Salah Tamari. He takes me on a tour of the childrens hospital. A boy with his legs blown off gives me the thumbs up. Another dreams of going to university in Havana once hes got his eyesight back. Palme had three sons, I had four. Maybe we had the same nightmares.

Which reminds me. As things stand, one of the first acts of Johnsons post-Brexit government will be to deny child refugees the right to be reunited with their parents in Britain.

How would Palme have responded to todays Orwellian lie machines that would have made Joseph Goebbels blush as they wear down our decency, our common sense, and drive us to question incontestable truths?

The last splinters of Jamal Khashoggi have, we assume, been swept under the carpet of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The culprits have freely confessed that they acted on impulse. They just went a bit wild, the way boys do. The Crown Prince is shocked. The rest is fake news. No bone saw, no screams, no Khashoggi lookalike walking out of the consulate wearing the wrong shoes.

So heres a question. If Palme were Swedens prime minister today, and Sweden had a fat arms deal running with Saudi Arabia, which way would he jump? Would he take a sensible, relaxed British view and say, look here, for heavens sake, lets stop moaning and get on with the next shipment, theyre Arabs and theyve got a war to feed? Or would he as I want to believe tell his arms industry: whatever it costs, just bloody well stop.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley: Smiley and I have history together. Sixty years of it. Photograph: BBC

I dont know whether Palme read me youd be amazed how many people havent. What I do know is that, quite soon after I began reading my way through his life, and the causes that inspired him, it seemed to me that every book I had written was some sort of unconscious footstep along his path.

My leading character, and the one I am best known for, is George Smiley. Smiley was recruited to the Secret Service in his early youth, as I was, and for all his earnest excursions into 17th-century German literature, at heart he knew no other world than the secret one. Throughout his long professional life he was besieged by moral doubt. When I was asked to draw a picture of him, I drew a lonely man carrying his horse uphill an image that might have won a weary smile of recognition from Palme.

Smiley and I have history together. Sixty years of it. When I took a new direction, Smiley followed me. And sometimes Smiley knew the way better than I did and I followed him, which is what happens when you invent a character who is smarter than you are.

Here is Smiley in 1979, when the cold war looked as though it would last forever. With exemplary tradecraft, he has lured his Soviet adversary, codename Karla, across the Berlin Wall. He has done this by exploiting a character defect, as we liked to call it, in this otherwise impenetrable communist diehard. The character defect in question is love: a fathers love for his mentally sick daughter. In defiance of every rule in the KGB handbook, Karla has spirited his beloved daughter to a Swiss sanatorium under a false name, and Smiley has used this knowledge to blackmail him. And now here Karla comes, Soviet zealot, loving father, defector, across the Glienicke Bridge from East to West Berlin.

George, you won, says Peter Guillam, Smileys loyal disciple.

Did I? Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did, Smiley replies.

Palme would have shared his self-disgust.

When the cold war ended and the western world was still congratulating itself, Smiley felt betrayed, and so did I. And Palme would have felt betrayed, if he had lived long enough. Where was the promised peace we had all been waiting for? Where was the Great Vision? The reconciliation? The nuclear disarmament treaty that Palme had been tirelessly working for? Where was the Marshall Plan that would pull battered nations off their knees? And above all, where was the voice of hope and renewal? Is it too fanciful to imagine that, had he lived, Palme might have supplied that voice?

Here is Smiley in 1990, one year after the Wall came down and four years after Palmes death: One day, history may tell us who really won. If a democratic Russia emerges why, then Russia will have been the winner. And if the West chokes on its own materialism, then the West may still turn out to be the loser.

I see Palme nodding.

And here is Smiley in great age he was always older than me, a father figure still hunting for the answer to a question that has haunted him all his life: did I compromise my humanity to the point where I lost it altogether?

We were not pitiless, Peter, he insists to his same disciple. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity. Arguably it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. But we did not know it then.

But in my imagination I hear Palme vigorously object: That is an unsound, self-serving argument that could equally well apply to any monstrous act perpetrated in the name of democracy.

I see a sharp, swift face. Restless eyes, sometimes hooded. Smiles real and forced. A face that struggles for forbearance in the presence of lesser minds, vulnerable, watchful, and precious in the way we imagine young poets to be. The precise voice barely falters even when its owner is on fire. I feel an unbearable impatience burning in him, caused by seeing and feeling more clearly and faster than anybody else in the room.

Le Carr in 1965. Photograph: Cine Text/Sportsphoto/Allstar

I would have been nervous to engage him in argument because he would have made rings round me even when I was right. But I never met him. I can only hear him and watch him and read him. The rest is catch-up.

The last speech of his life was to the United Nations in 1985: an unsuccessful appeal to ban the use of nuclear weapons under international law. Thirty years on, the Swedish government voted for just such a ban. Now called upon to reaffirm their vote, they have postponed their decision under American pressure. The issue is back on the table. We shall see.

How would Palme wish to be remembered? Well, by this for a start. For his life, not his death. For his humanism, courage, and the breadth and completeness of his humanist vision. As the voice of truth in a world hell-bent on distorting it. By the inspiring, inventive enterprises undertaken yearly by young people in his name.

Is there anything I would like to add to his epitaph? A line by May Sarton that he would have enjoyed: One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

And how would I like to be remembered? As the man who won the 2019 Olof Palme prize will do me just fine.

David Cornwell, January 2020. This speech was given at the Olof Palme prize ceremony in Stockholm on 30 January.

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PM said EU leaders would be blamed for their obduracy and that UK could keep much of 39bn settlement

Britain could easily cope with a no-deal Brexit, which would be the fault of EU leaders obduracy, Boris Johnson claimed at the summit of G7 countries in France, as he continued to resist mounting pressure to spell out his own plans for breaking the deadlock.

I think we can get through this, this is a great, great country, the UK, we can easily cope with a no-deal scenario, Johnson insisted in Biarritz, as he made his debut on the international stage as prime minister with a series of bilateral meetings with world leaders including Donald Trump, the EU council president, Donald Tusk, and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi.

Johnson said preparations for no deal were being ramped up to help secure an agreement, but also so that if and when we are forced by the obduracy by our European friends to come out on 31 October without a deal that things are as smooth as they can possibly be.

Johnson claimed food shortages one of the risks outlined in the leaked Operation Yellowhammer documents on no-deal planning were highly unlikely, and offered a guarantee that patients would be able to access medicines unhindered.

The prime minister said that in the event of no deal the UK would withhold much of the 39bn financial settlement agreed by Theresa May and insisted it was up to the EU27 to avert that eventuality.

If we come out without an agreement it is certainly true that the 39bn is no longer, strictly speaking, owed, he said. There will be very substantial sums available to our country to spend on our priorities. Its not a threat. Its a simple fact of reality.

Back: David Lipton (IMF), Moussa Faki (AUC), David Malpass (World Bank), Scott Morrison (Australia), Antonio Guterres (UN), Narendra Modi (India), Guy Ryder (ILO), Pedro Sanchez (Spain), Angel Gurria (OECD), Akinwumi Adesina (African Development Bank). Front: Boris Johnson (UK), Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Paul Kagame (Rwanda), Abdel Sisi (Egypt), Shinzo Abe (Japan), Justin Trudeau (Canada), Donald Trump (US), Emmanuel Macron (France), Angela Merkel (Germany), Macky Sall (Senegal), Roch Marc Christian Kabor (Burkina Faso), Sebastin Piera (Chile), Guiseppe Conte (Italy), Donald Tusk (EC) Photograph: Getty Images

During the Conservative leadership campaign, Johnson suggested the entire 39bn would be retained in the hope of using it as leverage to win a better future trading relationship from the EU27. But Downing Street appears to have conceded that legal obligations for past liabilities may mean up to a quarter of it may still have to be paid.

Johnson is battling to keep alive the prospect of striking a reworked exit deal with the EU27 in time for Britain to leave by the Halloween deadline, which he has made it a mission of his government to meet.

But with just a week until MPs return to Westminster, preparing to seize any opportunity to bind his hands, Johnson has so far presented no detailed plan.

After Johnson met Tusk on the sidelines of the G7 summit on Sunday, an EU official said, nothing really happened. It was essentially just a reconfirmation of of the views of both sides. There were no new substantive elements from any side, and obviously not from the UK side, the official said.

What we ideally would have been hoping for and looking for are new ideas that unblock this situation, the European official said. So we are waiting We need input from their side.

Meanwhile, it emerged this weekend that Downing Street has sought legal advice from the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, about the possibility of shutting down parliament from September.

Asked about the issue on Sunday, a senior government official said, No 10 commissions legal advice on a whole range of issues, but the PM is clear that he is not going to stop MPs debating Brexit.

Johnsons parliamentary opponents appear unable to present a united front, however. The shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, accused the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, of being extremely petulant on Sunday, after she raised doubts about whether Jeremy Corbyn was the right person to lead a caretaker government to prevent a no-deal Brexit.

Gardiner told Sky News that the Labour leader was offering a failsafe way of achieving the Lib Dems Brexit aims, but he said Swinson had concluded, oh well, we are not going to cooperate if Jeremy Corbyn is going to be the person who does it.

Labour has suggested it could table a vote of no confidence in Johnsons government but is unlikely to do so immediately after MPs return from summer recess unless it is convinced Tory rebels are ready to back it.

Swinson has written to Corbyn, suggesting an agenda for the meeting and warning that if he insists on leading the charge it could prevent the plan succeeding.

In the last week, many MPs who stand opposed to no deal, in particular key Conservative MPs, have rejected your proposal to lead an emergency government. Insisting you lead that emergency government will therefore jeopardise the chances of a no confidence vote gaining enough support to pass in the first place, she wrote.

The former chancellor Philip Hammond revealed the extent of the bad blood between Downing Street and Conservative moderates on Sunday, as he wrote to the PM demanding an apology for briefings that suggested the Yellowhammer leak came from former ministers.

Hammond said it had since emerged the document was dated to August, and thus could not have been leaked by one of the moderates dispatched to the backbenches in Johnsons summer reshuffle.

A government official said Johnson would respond, in due course.

On Sunday, Johnson claimed the Brexit mood music had improved significantly over recent days; but it remained touch and go whether a deal was achievable.

Throughout the summit in Biarritz, Johnson has sought to stress the UKs determination to remain internationalist and to distance itself from Trumps White House on some questions.

At a dinner of G7 leaders on Saturday night, which sources said was occasionally testy, Johnson sided with Germany, France and others against the US presidents argument that Russia should be readmitted to the group.

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No-deal Brexit is British PMs central scenario, chief Brussels envoy reportedly says

Boris Johnson has no intention of renegotiating the withdrawal agreement and a no-deal Brexit is his central scenario, European diplomats have been told, amid hardening evidence in Westminster that the government is expecting to crash out of the EU.

Brussels diplomats briefed after a meeting between the prime ministers chief envoy and senior EU figures in Brussels said that Britains refusal to compromise was understood to have been clear to those attending.

Instead David Frost, the governments new chief Europe adviser, is said to have sought discussions on how negotiations could be reset after the UK crashes out on 31 October.

It was clear UK does not have another plan, a senior EU diplomat said of the meetings with Frost. No intention to negotiate, which would require a plan. A no deal now appears to be the UK governments central scenario.

The disclosure came as No 10 insisted the government was ready to negotiate in good faith but made clear that Johnson would only agree to a deal without what he refers to as the undemocratic backstop the mechanism to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland that could keep the UK in a customs union. The EU has repeatedly said the backstop is not up for negotiation.

The UKs failure to provide any proposals on how to deal with the controversial Irish backstop was felt to be significant by EU officials who spoke to the Guardian.

Frost was said to have told the officials that a technological solution to the Irish border was the UKs preferred option before admitting that it would not be ready now for Brexit.

Even if EU gave up the backstop there is no alternative, a diplomat concluded of the discussion.

That message has now gone loud and clear to capitals, it was useful to hear it from horses mouth, the EU source said. Reality is sinking in.

With no new UK-EU talks scheduled, there were meanwhile signs in Westminster that Johnsons government was readying itself for a no-deal Brexit and preparing to do battle with Tory MPs who have said they will join with opposition parties to prevent that outcome.

The prime ministers senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, instructed special advisers across the government to keep on top of preparations for a no deal Brexit early on Monday morning and attacked Philip Hammond, the former chancellor, for failing to get the country ready.

Over the weekend, it became clear he believes that Johnson could simply refuse to resign in the event of losing a no-confidence motion and schedule an general election for November after leaving the EU at the end of October.

Johnson said on Monday that an election was the last thing he wanted. But his official spokesman stressed at his regular briefing for journalists that Brexit would take place on 31 October whatever the circumstances, even if parliament has voted against a no-deal departure or passed a confidence motion against the prime minister necessitating an election.

Conservative rebels plotting against a no-deal Brexit are already considering how to thwart No 10, believing an alternative government could potentially be created with a majority to challenge Johnson if he loses a confidence vote.

Corbyn indicated on Monday that he may be prepared to bring a no-confidence vote in the government very soon after parliament returns from its summer break in September.

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‘No deal will be really serious’; Corbyn responds to Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit video

We will do everything to stop no deal, including a no-confidence vote at the appropriate very early time to do it, he said on a visit to flood-stricken Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire. The prime minister seems to be trying to slip no deal through, slip past parliament and slip past the British people.

Sorry, no deal will be really serious. Serious for food prices, for medical supplies, for trade, for investment, and drive us straight into the hands of the sort of trade deal that Donald Trump wants to do with Boris Johnson.

Im sorry, its not on, its not acceptable. We will do everything we can to block it.

Several Conservative MPs, including Hammond, have indicated they could vote with Labour to bring Johnson down if he is set on a no-deal Brexit. Friends of Hammond also hit back at Cummings on Monday, saying it was simply untrue that the Treasury had failed to prepare.

The bigger question is why is Dominic Cummings, the de facto deputy PM, so keen to spend yet more taxpayers money on something that his boss insists has only a one in a million chance of happening? one Hammond ally said.

EU officials increasingly believe the UK is heading for a no-deal exit after their meetings with Frost, who replaced Theresa Mays chief negotiator, Olly Robbins. Last week, Frost met Clara Martnez Alberola, the head of cabinet for the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker; Stphanie Riso, a senior official in Michel Barniers negotiations taskforce, who was a key player in drafting the terms of the backstop, and Ilze Juhansone, the deputy secretary general at the commission.

The demand over the weekend by the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, that Barnier seek a new negotiating mandate from the EUs leaders to allow fresh talks was seen as mere noise.

Diplomats said the message was seen as confrontational unhelpful but that more in that vein was expected at a meeting of the G7 in Biarritz, when Johnson will meet Juncker.

A spokeswoman for the European commission said the impact of the UK crashing out would be proportionally heavier on the British side of the Channel.

The spokeswoman added: For a negotiation to be successful it takes two to tango. If the music and the rhythm is not right then you have no dance.

But that doesnt mean that it was a failure. I think both sides negotiated with the very best intentions and very best efforts. The outcome on the table is the best deal possible and I dont think there is any fault or blame to be looked for in this.

A UK government spokesman said: We are ready to negotiate in good faith an alternative to the anti-democratic backstop.

There is abundant scope to find the technological solutions necessary and these solutions can and will be found, in the context of the free trade agreement that we will negotiate with the EU after 31 October.

The spokesman added: The prime minister wants to meet EU leaders and negotiate a new deal one that abolishes the anti-democratic backstop.

We will throw ourselves into the negotiations with the greatest energy and the spirit of friendship. The fact is the withdrawal agreement has been rejected by parliament three times and will not pass in its current form so if the EU wants a deal it needs to change its stance. Until then, we will continue to prepare to leave the EU on 31 October.

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Bit players such as Mark Francois are basking in an unusual degree of attention

Sick of Brexit? Yeah, me too. Partly because it becomes clearer with each chaotic day that for some of the second-tier Brexit ultras no one much cares about (Mark Francois, Steve Baker, Andrew Bridgen, Bernard Jenkin et al), this is the most attention theyve ever had and are ever likely to get in their sad, blustering, self-important lives. While its Remainers who are supposed to be the soppy drama queens, just look at this bunch flapping about the media, mouth-breathing through their camera-time, sparkly eyed with their own significance. Brexit as a debilitating national crisis? Hardly. Theyve never felt so alive.

Listening to Steve Barker: Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Peter Bone in parliament on 11 September 2018. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Its increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that some very unimpressive politicos appear to be having a good Brexit, achieving a prominence that until now not so mysteriously eluded them. When the likes of Boris Johnson scuttled off to perfect leadership bids, a vacuum appeared and into it swooped whos that? characters to variously spray sub-military, spittle-flecked drivel into television cameras (Francois), rant about bulldozing Westminster (Baker), brag about refusing to compromise (Bridgen) and wail about no deal (all of the above). Politically, theyre hardened Brexiters having their moment, but a dark psychological subtext also hints at near-nonentities lapping up the attention theyve long craved.

Weve all met types like this at school or work people who suddenly appear in some unlikely position of importance, who havent got the wit or intelligence to hide the fact that a little bit of power and attention has gone straight to their heads. These situations can initially seem amusing, but such people are dangerous, not because of their charisma, rather their lack of it. These are characters who may have (resentfully) accepted that they were destined for the parliamentary equivalent of collecting the books at the end of class. Suddenly, Brexit transforms them into major players, mavericks, star-makers. Theyre on the news, being questioned, criticised, studied, noticed. All thats got to be hard to give up.

Im not suggesting that this is the reason that no resolutions could be found, just that on some level it must have suited them when they werent. After all, a resolution means being plunged back into obscurity. No more BBC radio or Sky TV to provide balance. No more green rooms and lovely attention. Back to endless boring MP-nothingness, sorting out bin collection disputes.

Never underestimate how much the also-rans of Westminster crave the tiniest beam of spotlight. Nor mistake this for revenge of the nerds (nerds tend to know their stuff). See them for what they are: a parliamentary voodoo carnival of the self-sabotaging, mediocre and overlooked.

Brexit ultras, though? More like Brexit extras in the thespian sense, bit-part players, understudies, spear carriers. Or competition winners. Perhaps its time to prise those needy little fingers away from the golden ticket of political stardom that they believe has fluttered so unexpectedly into their grasp.

Dont knock painting by numbers it brought art to the masses

Dan Robbins: a masterful creator. Photograph: Jim Newberry/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy Stock Photo

Dan Robbins, the US artist who created the paint-by-numbers kits, has died, aged 93. Paint-by-numbers is a great example of a product that was sneered at by the elite, but sold shedloads and became part of the culture. While it isnt perfect (those fiddly little pots!), and there are obvious limitations in terms of artistic expression (the whole point is that you rigidly follow the rules), you can see why its enduringly popular helping ordinary people create something beautiful.

The kits were inspired by Leonardo da Vincis teaching techniques, and became very varied, but that didnt stop purists worrying that they devalued true art. Maybe so, but not everyone is fortunate enough to attend art college or even to be talented.

While painting by numbers may have idiot-proofed art for the masses, it also democratised it. The technique has since been used to keep children focused on art projects, when they might otherwise lose heart. Then there is the therapeutic effect for adults who just want to sit and be still a form of meditation, if you will.

So, RIP, Dan Robbins. His invention may not have been about high art, but it showed he knew about humans.

Fines dont tackle racism on the pitch. Its time to kick off

Danny Rose: happy to turn his back on football. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

Whatever stops a football career (age, injury), it shouldnt be racism. The England and Tottenham Hotspur player Danny Rose, who was abused during the Euro 2020 qualifier in Montenegro, said: When countries get fined what I probably spend on a night out in London, what do you expect? Rose added: Ive got five or six more years left in football and I just cant wait to see the back of it.

First, Im up for a night out with Rose such a fine would be around 42,500 but, realistically, thats not much in international footballing terms and we all know what Rose means. In the UK, racist abuse remains rife, despite the No Room for Racism campaign by the Premier League and the sports anti-discrimination organisation, Kick It Out. Only last week, Wymeswold striker Linford Harris was racially abused as he was sent off during the Vase cup final, leading to a fight involving both players and fans and the match having to be abandoned.

Rose and Harris are literally in different leagues in footballing terms, but thats the point Premier League or amateur, theyll both have had a gutful of racist abuse. This behaviour isnt representative of the average fan, but its still painful to behold, not least because football remains a proud bedrock of working-class culture. However much big money sloshes around, despite the attempts to gentrify it, football has stayed stubbornly working class in spirit, which is miraculous. Racism degrades this achievement especially as other events attracting large crowds (other sports, music festivals) prove that such ugliness isnt inevitable.

Its sickening that someone such as Rose is counting down the days. What can be done? sStopping matches as soon as the abuse starts, the same way concerts are halted if bottles are thrown? While efforts have been made, theyre not enough. Wheres zero tolerance when you need it?

Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist

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Exclusive: Norwegian officials tell Brussels they may seek radical rethink of their terms if UK has access to single market for key sectors

May faces tougher transition stance from EU amid Norway pressure

Exclusive: Norwegian officials tell Brussels they may seek radical rethink of their terms if UK has access to single market for key sectors

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Brexit teaches a frightening lesson in the pain of separation. Is there more to come of the same?

The Scottish referendum was held only a little more than three years ago, but it belongs to a different political age the all-male era of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband, Osborne and Salmond and in my case, a different emotional one. In the run-up to the yes/no vote on Scottish independence, I wrote a long piece on what Britain meant to me as a place and Britishness as an identity, ending with the thought that if the yes side succeeded, then the United Kingdom that had shaped so many of us would no longer exist. If it happens, I shall grieve was my closing sentence.

Journalism, like writing of all kinds, is filled with the rhetorical flourish: things overstated, half-meant, or sometimes not meant at all. But whatever the faultsof the piece as a whole, I would take an oath to say its final sentiment was completely sincere.

I had no vote in the referendum, but as usual Id spent the summer in Scotland and, as August turned into September and the opinion polls narrowed, I began to fret obsessively that where I stood, the ground beneath my feet, might soon belong to a different nation state; and that Id soon be hankering after a country that no longer existed, like some white-moustached old soldier remembering the complicated virtues of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Even now I associate certain places an empty tearoom, a hollow in the grass above the beach with that feeling of anxiety that grew three years ago under a glorious, uncaring September sun.

An old fire-engine workshop in Vauxhall, south London, is an odd venue to be reconnected to those memories, but it was there this week, in the temporary home of the Migration Museum, that a thinktank called These Islands was launched which, to quote its statement of values, stands unabashedly for the view that more unites the three nations of Great Britain than divides them, and that good relations between the various communities of Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are all the more important to work for in the wake of Brexit.

In other words, and not forgetting that these islands allows the inclusion of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands as well as the Irish Republic in any discussion, this is a broadly pro-unionist body that believes that the United Kingdom has more to offer its constituent parts than the comfort of subsidies distributed by the Barnett formula, afforded from taxes raised largely in the City of London.

Alex Salmond used to talk confidently of how the social union between England and Scotland would survive undamaged by Scottish independence, but post-Brexit England suggests an angrier and more contested outcome. Photograph: David Rose/The Daily Telegraph/PA

The official unionist case in the Scottish referendum famously depended on the financial argument that independence would make Scotland poorer hence Project Fear and other than in a late intervention from Gordon Brown, it tended to avoid appeals to historic achievement or the culture and ways of living that we hold in common. The consequences of leaving the union were measured in pounds, quite literally; and as the Westminster government won in 2014, it rolled out a similar negative strategy in the EU referendum two years later, in which the positives of EU membership were never stressed.

In 2014, nonetheless, a few individuals did try to draw attention to the less hardheaded case for unionism, sometimes in a less than hardheaded way. The Tory MP Rory Stewart devised what he called a cairn of friendship or auld acquaintance at Gretna Green, where people from both sides of the border were invited to lay a stone. The popular historians Tom Holland and Dan Snow organised an open letter signed by 200 non-Scottish celebrities, including Mick Jagger, David Attenborough and Stephen Hawking, saying how much they valued the shared bonds of UK citizenship. David Bowie pleaded for Scotland to stay.

The new thinktank was founded by three people who met at that time: Tom Holland; another historian, Prof Ali Ansari; and the businessman and blogger Kevin Hague. They have assembled a 40-member advisory council rich in good names, including Lady ONeill, Prof Margaret MacMillan and Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield.

The aim is to inform and develop the unionist case in the words of Nigel Biggar, Oxford Universitys regius professor of moral and pastoral theology to remedy the faltering inarticulacy of unionists in explaining what the UnitedKingdom is good for during the 2014 referendum; an inarticulacy that came about, so Biggar writes in the thinktanks first published paper, from the natural difficulty of describing the very ground upon which we have long been standing.

So what is the United Kingdom good for? According to Biggar, three things: as a bulwark against Russias threat to liberal democracy; as an example of multinational solidarity (the depth of which the European Union can still only dream); and as a prominent upholder of a humane international order a post-imperial habit that for the worlds sake the UK needed to keep. All of these things will remain true whether or not Brexit comes to pass, but all will be diminished if the UK breaks apart.

As befits his job, he has a moral view.A nation that wants to leave the UK needs to have motivating grievancesthat are serious and not trivial, chronic and not temporary, and current rather than historic. (The italics are his.)Otherwise the risks that almost invariably attend political divorce cantbe justified: they would be recklessand imprudent andthereforemorallywrong.

This is confidently written, but where does the European referendum fit in? If the people of England want out, and the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland prefer to stay, where does that leave Biggars multinational solidarity? Would a second Scottish referendum be morally wrong? Would it be morally wrong of Northern Ireland to choose reunification with the Republic?

Perhaps the answers hardly matter, because in the end the questions will be settled by economics: on Dublins readiness to take on the expense of Northern Ireland, and on a Scotland that would find it hard to push for independence when it exports four times more to the rest of the UK than it does to the restofthe EU.

Listening to the participants at the launch of These Islands, I was struck, like others there, by how little of this kind of conversation had gone on before the European referendum, and by how unprepared we had been for the bitter social division left in its wake. Alex Salmond used to talk confidently of how the social union between England and Scotland would survive undamaged by Scottish independence, but post-Brexit England suggests an angrier and more contested outcome, with (to quote Biggar) tough and fraught negotiations awakening old resentments on both sides. England and Scotland, after all, have been far more deeply integrated than the UK and the EU, and for seven times as long.

Three years on, I would find it much harder to grieve for the end of Britain. Brexit and a strident English nationalism have changed everything. On the other hand, an independent Scotland seems economically impossible at its present standard of living, and we have a sense now (soon to be enlarged) of how painful a process the cutting of political and commercial entanglements can be. In these circumstances, the thinktank These Islands may find its true purpose in encouraging us to make the best of things: a pep talk to a weary couple holding on to the wreckage.

Ian Jack is a Guardian columnist

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The strongmen who fix on the immigrant as the enemy also turn women into objects, writes the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams

Looking at the Brexit vote now, it was a precursor to some extent of what happened to us in the United States, Hillary Clinton told the BBCs Andrew Marr. When President Barack Obama came over just before the referendum to plead with our better natures and warn of an outcome which he elegantly understated the catastrophe of, it felt a little shaming, like a grownup arriving in the middle of a food fight. Clinton, partly because she isnt president, mainly because those Brexit and Trump ships have sailed, appears less like an authority and more like a coroner at an inquest.

Her third argument is to remind us how extraordinary it is, how unprecedented, how eerie, that they just elected someone who admitted sexual assault to the presidency.

Leaving the EU, voting for an aggressive and unstable reality TV star, holding women in contempt: there is no obvious logical connection here, no strand of ideas that takes you from the Singapore free-trade fantasies of hard Brexiters, to the protectionism of Donald Trump, to the new misogynist mood music that enables our foreign secretary to dismiss the disquiet about a sexual predator in the White House as a whinge-o-rama. Yet we know instinctively that these positions are connected, that the chauvinism which turns women into objects exists in the same mental frame as fixing on the immigrant as the enemy, or the Muslim as the source of all violence.

Clintons linking mechanism, between our politics and hers, was pragmatic: both the EU referendum and the US election were poisoned by fake news. A big lie can get you a long way in politics, especially if all the usual defences against it a competent and passionate opposition, a sober and neutral media have miraculously evaporated. Certainly, the legitimacy of a result won by falsehood is questionable; and yes, the internet, in its impact on democracy, is not looking like an untrammelled boon.

Yet there have been communities creating fake news since the dawn of time. At any point in history when hatred has been generated to persuasive effect, you would have found somebody, somewhere, cobbling together some nonsense about the death of a child or satanic rituals or improper use of emails. Far more novel than fake news is the expectation that published matter should be true, which is less than two centuries old.

The important shift over the recent past is not the explosion of misinformation but the willingness of politicians to spread it. The rules around respectability used to be pretty clear on this: you could use facts selectively to make your case, conveniently ignore those that didnt suit it, possibly amplify, maybe bluster a bit. But you did not, in public office, say a thing you knew to be untrue. To do so would mean relegating yourself from the ranks of the serious, into the more Mike Fabricant-ey realm, where you yell bollocks in parliament and dream of punching journalists in the throat, and nobody minds because theres only one of you and you have funny hair.

The 350m NHS claim, now, is only the flagship lie. It has become quite routine for facts to be misused or waved away, for experts to be dismissed and inconvenient truths rejected as sabotage or treason, by quite senior figures in public life. It is pretty normal for members of government to use words to mean the opposite of their definitions, parliamentary sovereignty when they mean parliamentary submission, overwhelming majority when they mean very slim majority. What inoculated the political culture from falsity was not a shortage of it, but the standards politicians held themselves to.

It wasnt perfect; dishonesty happened in the wings but not on the stage. What drives this new impunity is not scorn for the truth but a contempt for pluralism. In a debate proceeding along pluralistic lines, compromise is expected, different perspectives are welcomed, sustained argument is understood as a creative process leading to greater wisdom; and the foundation for it all is a shared set of facts.

If you want your debate to proceed along authoritarian lines, where the winner takes all and the loser shuts up, the first thing to eliminate is that shared space called reality, where everyone has access to the same information and agrees on its veracity. When Trump lies on Twitter, whether its about how many times hes been Time magazines cover star, or the size of his inauguration crowd, its not by accident: he is explicitly rejecting the audacity of the demand that he be tethered by argument. It doesnt matter whats true: all that matters is who won.

It is no coincidence, then, that a rise of fake facts in politics has been accompanied by a new opacity, where studies can be conducted on the impact of Brexit upon the nation, yet its citizens arent allowed to know what they contain; where a president can press his personal interest in a phone call with his opposite number in another country, yet not release the transcript.

The contents of all these documents are secondary to the message: its not your business, because were in charge. Far more chilling than the likely economic consequences of Brexit has been the rise of zero-sum politics; a prime minister asking her parliament to unite behind her, as if five centuries of due process, opposition, scrutiny and critical thinking had never happened.

In a new political context of authoritarianism, misogyny flourishes not as a sideshow, but because the organising principles that fought it are under attack. All equality battles are won on the understanding of universal human rights: a worldview in which everybody is born equal, everyones potential is infinitely precious, everyones perspective enriches understanding, everybody has a right to be heard.

Once all that is rejected, in favour of aworldview in which a single, dominant perspective must obliterate all others, acommon understanding of equality and respect that seemed so solid suddenly appears precarious.

Arguments belonging to the middle of the last century resurface. Are women fit for public office? Are women responsible for male violence? Do women deserve reproductive autonomy, or will they just mess it up?

Of course, these arguments never truly went away. But strongman politics is back, and it sees sex and trade and debate all as wars, in which there is no possibility of mutual benefit: there is only the victor and the vanquished.

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The war of words over the rocky outcrop is only the latest spat in 500 years of squabbling between the two countries

Brexit began in 1527. It was, in essence, a spat with Spain. The man responsible for this dramatic and deeply unsettling change in Britains constitution was a fat, childish and overindulged English monarch called Henry VIII, who became obsessed by something we might call control.

Henry seemed like a jolly chap. He liked music, drank beer, danced a good jig and also liked women although he was somewhat scared of them, which explains why he chopped off their heads. He came from an England with big ideas about itself, but which was essentially in decline. It had lost most of its territory in France and, in comparison to bold and dynamic Spain, was decidedly puny.

The Columbus family had tried but failed to interest the Tudors in exploring the Atlantic Ocean and backing a venture that would change the next 500 years of world history. But the Tudors were inward-looking, insular types. Instead, a female Spanish monarch Isabella of Castile backed Christopher Columbus. The next two centuries of European history, and the first global empire on which the sun did not set, belonged to Spain which, to say truly, is a beam of glory, as Francis Bacon later observed.

It is not surprising that the insecure Tudors were thrilled when Isabellas daughter, Catherine of Aragon, arrived in England as a young bride-to-be. It meant that they had managed a tie-up with the great Spanish royal family. Whereas England was in retreat, Spain was widely admired as a nation of plucky fighters who had just conquered the Muslim kingdom of Granada.

Henry VIII, as painted by Hans Holbein the Younger. Photograph: De Agostini/Getty Images

Henry VIIIs first major decision as monarch was to marry Catherine, who was his brother Arthurs widow, and maintain the Spanish alliance. But Henry also saw himself as a manly man and one who needed another man to reign after him. Catherine, however, failed to produced a son.

Henry thought he was cleverer than those in charge of the great European union of the time. This was known as Christendom and was run from a foreign capital by the pope. Most importantly, England had recognised for centuries that the senior court for matters such as divorce also lay in Rome. A self-deluding Henry thought he could out-argue Catherine, but she was smarter and stronger. Henry was always going to lose, but the absurdly high esteem in which he held both himself and English history made him blind to this. In the end, Catharine won the argument and the pope refused him a divorce. A petulant Henry cursed wretched foreigners and launched his own Brexit by leaving the church of Rome. Bloodshed followed as the English turned on one another and squabbled over the countrys new, non-European identity.

While Spain swam in wealth from South America, it took Britain centuries to achieve global prominence. Only bad weather helped it avert a true disaster when the Spanish armada tried to invade in 1588. Eventually, however, England grew and spoiled Spain went into decline. In 1704, a combined Dutch-English force took Gibraltar a barren rock of limited material value, but one that provided a key strategic port at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea.

Spains decline coincided with Britains rise, but they were united by a hatred of the French. When Napoleons troops invaded and the brave Spaniards turned on his troops, inventing guerrilla warfare, Britain sent an army to help. Wellington achieved handsome victories in what became known as the war of independence in Spain and the peninsula war in Britain. Drunken British troops murdered or raped much of the population of Badajoz and gained a reputation for heroic, foolish failure at Corunna (now La Corua). But Spain was glad to win the war and, with the exception of Gibraltar, largely remained a friend. Wellington walked away with a lot of great paintings especially by Velazquez but cultured Spain had lots more, and greater painters than England, so it did not really miss them.

Things were mostly rosy from then on. British mining companies showed the Spaniards how to play soccer and they learned well. The only real black spot was that a cowardly Britain stood by in the 1930s and allowed Hitler and Mussolini to help General Franco win the Spanish civil war, pushing it into dictatorship and encouraging Nazi Germany to launch the second world war. Many Britons died as a result, while Spanish republicans (the same people Britain had refused to help) volunteered to fight the Nazis and were the first to enter Paris.

There was, however, one major problem. General Franco wanted Gibraltar. He closed the frontier for many years, bringing suffering to the poor people of Gibraltar and preventing the Royal Navy from sneaking over the border for tapas. The rest of the world generally agreed that this was an absurd spat. What sort of people would get belligerent over Gibraltar?

Of all the big countries in Europe, Spain is now the one most enamoured of Britain. It wants a soft Brexit. It owns British banks, tolerates drunken tourists and is happy to have large populations of English people who do not speak its language some of them undocumented, so much like illegal immigrants on its coasts. It is, in other words, highly tolerant. But it still wants Gibraltar.

This does not mean it is about to invade. In fact, all it wants is a veto on future deals between Gibraltar and the EU. Thanks to Brexit, it now has that. Sensible Gibraltarians knew the risk and voted massively to stay in the EU. The suggestion that all this might now get out of hand and that gunboats should be used is a purely British one. Which seems as absurd now as Francos decisions to close the border did back then.

Giles Tremlett is the author of Isabella of Castile: Europes First Great Queen, published by Bloomsbury

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Unlike the democratic experience of the Potter movies, it seems only the smug rich can afford tickets for the stage play

Tickets are on sale for the new London West End stage show Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and the inevitable online explosion in tickets getting resold a single 130 ticket went for 2,000 proves what I have always suspected: theatre is a horrendous apartheid world that discriminates in favour of the smug rich, and cinema is a socialist utopia where everyone is welcome equally. You want tickets to the new Harry Potter play? Good luck. Youd better be well connected or welloff.

But when new Harry Potter movies were coming out, fans were treated democratically. They had access to the films and DVDs, and everyone from the hedge fund manager to the student nurse (or indeed the single mother forced to write books in the local cafe) paid the same and got the same experience.

Now, I admit that live transmission of theatre into cinemas changes the game a bit. But what about cracking down on exploitative ticket-scalping? How about having the original buyers names printed on tickets, and making people show ID on the door? Otherwise the Potter play is just creating a grisly resale market, and magicking up profits for secondary ticket websites.

No encores for Glasto voters

Can music change the world? There is a persistent tremor of unease on the subject of the EU/Glastonbury question. The referendum vote takes place on Thursday 23 June the second day of Glastonbury and it could be really close.

There are no EU voting booths at the festival. Glasto ticket-holders will have had to endure the unexciting business of registering for a postal or proxy vote, for which the deadline was Wednesday (though it could be extended).

Emily Eavis has blogged on the importance of doing this, and Michael Eavis is a committed Bremainer. But have these postal votes been registered in time? Bremaining is perceived as a young persons interest, with Brexiting supposedly the preserve of grumpy oldsters who are moreover more schooled in the tiresome pencil-and-paper business of voting, as opposed to liking, RT-ing, etc.

There may be about 175,000 people going to Glastonbury, so the vote would have to be on a knife edge for it to matter. The journalist and pollster Peter Kellner points out to me that in the case of a very close call, there is no facility for a recount of a referendum: the first result is set in stone, no matter what. I hope its not Brexit but Brexit by a whisker would be even more worrying.

Ode to the poetry listener

At Hay last week, Salman Rushdie lamented the lost art of memorising poetry. Christina Patterson, on this website, praised this skill as a Zumba class for the little grey cells. And the late Christopher Hitchens was known to launch into Yeatss An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, which he claimed was irresistibly seductive.

Reciting poetry off by heart is indeed a very pleasurable activity for the reciter. For your nearest and dearest, who have become used to it as a kind of annoying tic, it is more challenging. Their eyes glaze over. As far as my own case goes, duchess is a dangerous trigger word, causing me to launch into Robert Brownings poem My Last Duchess with full, hammy Larry Olivier-style hissing and simmering and Oscar-winning declaiming.

For a long time our family couldnt go into any art gallery without me gesturing at some portrait and quoting Brownings sinister lines: Paint must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half-flush that dies along her throat (with some Hammer Horror emphasis on throat). Speaking poetry by heart is a lovely skill. So is having to listen.Politely.

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Released from prison, Sandra vila Beltrn gives her first interview in almost a decade and recalls life inside the upper echelons of the Mexican drug world

Inside the front door of Sandra vila Beltrns home is an altar and lit candles that form a crowded shrine to her first husband (riddled by gunfire), her second husband (stabbed through the heart) and her brother (tortured to death). All were murdered during Mexicos ongoing cocaine wars.

vila is the stuff legends are made of one of the few women with access to the highest levels of cartel life. She has lived, worked and loved inside the upper echelons of the Mexican drug world since the late 1970s. At the height of her career, she showed a propensity to carry suitcases with millions of dollars in crisp $100 bills.

Her status led her to become known as The Queen of the Pacific, in honor of her alleged prowess organizing a fleet of tuna boats laden with 10 tons of cocaine each as they navigated north from Mexicos Pacific coast towards the worlds number one cocaine market: the United States.

vila has spent the last seven years in prison for money laundering, including two years in solitary confinement. Now free, she gave an exclusive interview, her first in nearly a decade, from her home near Guadalajara, in which she lashed out at Mexican politicians corruption, mocked the futility of drug prohibition and celebrated the escape of Joaqun El Chapo Guzmn.

Her three-decade rise to power has provided her with a front-row view of private jets, clandestine plastic surgery operations to disguise identity, murderous shootouts at VIP parties and one non-stop constant: massive bribes to Mexican public officials. The most I ever heard about was a $100m [bribe] to a Mexican president, vila said. A million dollars is nothing. I have seen one [politician] look into the bag to see if it was there. He knew everything.

Although she spoke freely for three hours, vila resolutely refused to see anything evil in the carnage of the drug violence in Mexico, blithely comparing it to Prohibition-era violence in the US. In her world, drugs were everywhere, and illegal drug use a consumer not moral choice. The tens of thousands of Mexicans killed by armed drug gangs includes many of her inner circle yet she refused to criticize the industry, instead seeking to portray violence as a result of either Mexican government-sponsored terrorism or prohibition policies not the well documented and undeniable savagery regularly used by Mexican drug gangs.

vila also refused to answer certain questions about her precise role in the cocaine trade, coyly forgetting the exact number of bodyguards in her personal detachment, and describing extremely large cash payments made to her as presents. And despite the horrendous bloodshed and estimated more than 100,000 deaths in Mexico over the past decades drug wars, she made one thing clear: she doesnt feel any guilt.

Sandra vila Beltrn at 19. Photograph: Supplied

A cartel leader is born

vila was born into narco royalty. As a child, she lived in opulence. She was offered private tuition, piano and dance lessons and frequent trips to SeaWorld and Disneyland. Her father, Alfonso vila Quintero, is related to the founder of the Guadalajara cartel. Her familys lifestyle also included piles of money. She spent so many hours counting cash as a child that she could later swipe a clutch of bills and just like a cocktail party trick precisely calculate their value.

Around the age of 13, she witnessed her first shootout. People walked the streets with pistols at the waist with musicians walking and playing behind them, she said. At dawn you heard the music, the shootouts, it was when they killed the people.

While her childhood friends soon rose to become leaders of the Sinaloa cartel, young Sandra explored other routes, taking her verve and enrolling in journalism classes as a feisty 17 year old. But three years into communication studies at the Universidad Autnoma de Guadalajara, a jealous boyfriend kidnapped her. He was a powerful young man closely tied to the cartels. Within months she had left town, ending her hopes of a career as an investigative reporter.

Instead, Sandra vila entered the drug underworld. It didnt hurt that she was a raucous car driver, a master horseback rider, and a fabled sharpshooter. She also, she said, made the best of her flirting skills.

I remember a suitor who bought me a pickup truck and left it at my friends house with flowers and a note, she said. The note said, spend the money on a trip that you want and there was an envelope. It held $100,000. By the age of 21, she was privately meeting with the drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, also known as El Seor de los Cielos (Lord of the Skies).

Her life became full-time cartel. An astute learner, she rose fast through the ranks and was coveted by men every step of the way.

However, vila made a point to never use cocaine herself. If you do it, the men think you are just another disposable woman, you wont be respected, she said.

Women in this world, she explained, are abused, discarded, and tossed out with little more concern than a child abandoning a Barbie doll. Narco leaders would keep a harem of up to 10 women and this sexual freedom, she emphasized, does not extend to their female counterparts. Women, she said, are looked at as objects, adornments or a necessity but never as a fighting being, or a person made of triumphs and achievements.

Sandra vila Beltrn, 18 years old and deeply in love with Javier Caro, who would later be murdered. Photograph: Supplied

Gaining respect was paramount to her. vila didnt want to be just invited to the party, she was determined to become the Queen of Cocaine. And in less than 10 years, her coronation was complete.

She became friendly with El Chapo Guzmn, dated a top leader of the Sinaloa cartel, commanded a 30-car flotilla and won shooting competitions with the head bodyguard to Rafael Caro Quintero, founder of the Guadalajara cartel.

For her sons 15th birthday, she gave him an Hummer and, later, a $40,000 allowance every few months. From her neck hung a gold pendant in the form of Tutankhamun with 83 rubies, 228 diamonds and 189 sapphires. Photos of her party life resemble an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashians except when she scanned the photos every few years, another one of the characters had been murdered.

She, however, seemed invincible.

On the run

In 2002, her luck turned. vilas son was kidnapped and when she paid the $5m ransom, the police intensified their scrutiny; her name now adorned a most wanted poster. She went on the run and for years lived as a fugitive.

It is tiring. Very tiring. We each have our own essence, our personality, which is unique and is strong for every person. To change that, to be another person is difficult, she said of that time. She was constantly changing houses, hair color even her voice.

She suffered the loss of any semblance of a normal life and sought pleasures where she could. Adrenaline is a drug, an addiction. There are people who like to feel adrenaline, some with heights, others with guns, and women who feel adrenaline when they cheat on their husbands, she laughed with a conspiratorial smile. That is adrenaline, the sin, that maybe you will get caught.

It is around that time that a band called Los Tucanes de Tijuana lionized vila as the Queen of the Pacific with their hit Party in the Mountains. Known as a narco corrido, this ode to cartel life described how vila once arrived fashionably late to a clandestine birthday party in the hills.

The gathering was packed with narcos, politicians, military brass and police commanders, and accessible only by air. A parking lot for airplanes had been cleared from the forest, and the buzz of helicopters was constant. As 200 bodyguards and snipers tensed up, the uber cool vila strode from a helicopter with dark glasses, AK-47 in hand, sporting a baseball cap, sans makeup or jewels. She was promptly escorted to the table of Guzmn.

Los Tucanes De Tijuana immortalized vila with their song Party in the Mountains.

The song became a hit, but vila was irate: she had been outed by a band.

Her prized anonymity was shattered, and her bad luck continued. Months later, she and her partner Joel were ambushed on the way to breakfast. Two gunmen boxed in their car and descended with a fusillade of gunfire. vila threw herself to the floor and, staring up at the sky, imagined it was her last seconds on Earth. But she flashed to her recently murdered brother and how that death had weighed so heavily on their mother. She took a gamble.

I decided to open the door and run. I thought I had a better probability of surviving if I got out. Perhaps I could save myself among the other cars. And thats what happened. I began to run, made it to the sidewalk, entered an apartment building, hid behind a little bush. I could see they were searching for me, I ducked down. And when he heard the sound of the sirens, the armed man who was coming after me started running to escape. They cordoned off the area and I could see Joel laid out in the street. Dead.

vila described how a humble witness to the scene gave her shelter, changed her into simple clothes, and saved her life. She took me by the arm, hugged me and said if anyone asks, to tell them I was her niece. She gave me 50 pesos [$3] because I had left everything in the car and I escaped in a taxi.

For the next three years, her life on the run continued. She met her new love, Juan Diego Espinoza, a handsome young Colombian cocaine dealer who, interviewed years later in prison, then estimated he was moving 10 tons of cocaine every month from Colombia to the US, via Mexico.

They were both arrested on 27 September 2007. This time, vila didnt try to flee. I couldnt believe when I was arrested and they called me by my name it was a relief to be arrested.

For much of the next decade she lived behind bars but in style. While other prisoners had visits in a common room, vilas guests were escorted to her cell where her three maids served food, alcohol and cigarettes.

Jos Gerardo Meja, the first journalist to interview her in prison, described vila as a prisoner in four-inch heels, adorned with jewels, custom clothing and obsequious guards who acted with the airs of a low-ranking diplomat announcing the arrival of the ambassador.

vila learned to tweak her beauty routines. We used the paper tubes from toilet paper for curling our hair. To paint your grey hairs, we used mascara and eyeliner, she cheerfully explained. For face lotion we used the clear cream for hemorrhoids.

Sandra vila Beltrn at home. Photograph: Jonathan Franklin

She also learned to survive in solitary confinement, where she was dumped for nearly two years. vila passed her time in isolation by reviving her journalist dream: she imagined she was a correspondent, writing and broadcasting newscasts. Listening to the radio in her cell, she covered elections in Venezuela and both Obama campaigns. I would listen to the newscasts, then make predictions about the results. Scribbling in notebooks, she avoided the monotony of months without human contact.

Released in February 2015, she has been slowly recovering her contacts and composure. Her fortune is mostly buried, and she and a bevy of lawyers are now furiously fighting to recoup approximately 15 homes, 30 sports cars and an estimated 300 jewels. Camaros, Trans-Am, Mercedes, Audi, I had them all, she said, remembering her favorite, a Bentley.

An insider whos out of the game

In June, USA Network will launch a TV series entitled Queen of the South, starring Alicia Braga as either a fictitious female cocaine queen or as vilas latest incarnation. The series is a remake of the Spanish-language version La Reina del Sur, starring Kate del Castillo the actress who eventually teamed up with Sean Penn for a clandestine and highly controversial meeting with El Chapo.

For vila, these are the actions of dilettantes, Hollywood-wannabes who will never penetrate the true intrigues of the narco world.

Describing the escape from prison of Guzmn, with whom she partied when he was on the run, she said: I was not surprised, money buys everything in Mexico. But it made me happy.

Asked what kind of collaboration from crooked officials Guzmn would have needed, she said: It has to be help from the highest levels of government. The federal prison system is tough. To be able to buy that system? It has to be from up high, not the director of a prison. Nor the guards. It has to be at the cabinet level.

So what single measure would she take if she were president of Mexico, and interested in eradicating drug violence?

First you have to attack poverty. Poverty is what causes violence. You start to be a delinquent and then become violent, she said.

Is it about opportunity, then? Narco trafficking is a business that has not been legalized, says vila. It is a business like alcohol [during prohibition] which was not legal In those days an alcohol salesman was considered a bad person but when they legalized it, the people who sold it became respectable. I dont see that alcohol or tobacco salesmen feel guilty. You go to a restaurant and a bar and the owners dont feel guilty.

Asked about how cartels will react to the legalization of marijuana and the possible end of a lucrative line of business, she said that it doesnt matter because there will always be the invention of new drugs. The important thing is to continue with the business.

At heart, her position is simple: each individual is free to partake in the drug world, or abstain. The statistics show that more people die from alcohol than drugs and where alcohol is sold, no one feels remorse, she said. No one is obliged to use.

Cartel-related deaths, she says, are the result of competition, and the Mexican governments brutal assassination tactics. The government at times has to kill people because it is not convenient to imprison witnesses who could testify against them.

The problem, she insisted, is not with those who cant leave the cartels, but those who prefer not to. There are people with loads of money but they dont get out. They dont want to this is what they like to do. It is like a Formula 1 race car driver who says: I like speed, I like to race.

Her relationship to the world of cocaine for now seems to be that of an insider who is not playing the game. She is proud to maintain all her old contacts and relationships, but, at 56, appears more interested in recovering the lost decade with her son who is in his late 20s.

We end our interview by watching the trailer for Queen of the South in her living room. She notes that people in the street call her Reina (Queen) and smiles at the notoriety. vila scoffed as the narrator described how the heroine becomes one of the richest traffickers in Mexico.

Ahhh, poor little girl, then they kill you, she sighed.

Additional reporting by Vctor Gutirrez.

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