For anyone still seeking evidence that we live in peculiarly inverted times, it came on Saturday lunchtime when the saddest sound of the day was one of delusional happiness.

As news about the Letwin amendment sidled out of that neo-Gothic hellhole, an ecstatic cheer arose in Parliament Square. Ah well, when you’re on death row at a few minutes to midnight, you’re entitled to celebrate a postponement.

But what exactly were they (we – I punched the air too) celebrating? Fresh hope that the capital sentence might be overturned on appeal? Or nothing more than the last meal chef being told to leave it for today and come back next week?

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Time will tell, but the prospects for the former aren’t spiffing. While the country does what it always done when invited, and stares in captivation at a meaningless distraction (Johnson’s unsigned letter asking the EU for a Brexit extension), the doors to the lethal injection chamber remain open.

If you think Oliver Letwin has slain the no-deal kraken, it’s my painful duty to disabuse you of that consolation. Should Boris Johnson’s deal pass today, as right now appears probable, the future is mortifyingly bleak.

After departing the EU in name if not in deed, whether on 31 October or some weeks later, there will be a little over a year for this government to negotiate a trade deal.

Deals between significant trading powers are things of enormous complexity. Even between willing participants, they take many years to finalise. Nothing vaguely comparable has been achieved in much less than a decade.

Unless Britain and the EU do a Bob Beamon to the world trade deal record, and smash it by about seven years, the Letwin amendment will go down not as a ray of blazing sunlight, but as the falsest dawn that ever broke. At the end of 2020, the hardest of Brexits will kick in. 

That timeframe can be changed. But that relies on Boris Johnson requesting an extension to the negotiation period by the end of next June. That seems unlikely, and unimaginable if by then he has won a general election.

If you’ve been wondering why, despite it hoisting the white flag over Theresa May’s Irish-sea red line, the Johnson deal has the ERG crazies spaffing all over the walls like Multiple Miggs in the cell next to Hannibal Lecter’s, this could be your answer.

Slower than previously, but as inexorably as ever, we are being driven to the cliff edge by Thelma Johnson and Louise Rees-Mogg as they sit in the front seats in the Savile Row parachutes that their wealth affords them.

There is one guaranteed escape route, and another with potential but no certainties. The former is the removal of this government, and its replacement by another of national unity that revokes Article 50 and/or calls a second referendum. 

The infantile posturing of Jo Swinson in refusing to consider a short-term Downing Street tenancy for Jeremy Corbyn, and Corbyn’s almost equally babyish refusal to stand aside for a compromise candidate, prevented that vessel leaving dry dock.

The last chance is an amendment to Johnson’s surrender bill mandating its confirmation via a second referendum in which a chance to Remain is also on the ballot.

Keir Starmer tells us Labour will table such an amendment this week. Who knows, maybe it will. Perhaps Corbyn will accept a Final Say as the most viable way to defend the employment and environmental rights Johnson is desperate to bin. Failing that epiphany, perhaps Starmer, John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry will tag team Uncle Duffer, and threaten to resign en masse.

If Corbyn agrees, voluntarily or by coercion, to whip such an amendment, its chances will rest on two questions. Are the DUP MPs sufficiently livid that Arlene Foster is the latest model to roll off the Johnson conveyor belt of deceived women, as some have hinted they might? Can Labour MPs currently minded to vote for Johnson’s deal be persuaded to promote their constituents’ interests above their own?

It’s as easy for the outsider to be glib about such a dilemmas as it’s hard for the insider to risk status and income. But if they can’t take inspiration from the Tories who threw away their political futures to support the Benn Act, the likes of Caroline Flint will have to live with this knowledge: they enabled an act of vindictive national mutilation from behind a smokescreen of their own bespoke, crudely self-serving definition of what democracy means.

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Whether ultimately they find that prospect more or less palatable than risking their careers will, if the amendment is brought and backed by the DUP, decide the future.

I wish them well with their deliberations as we near the moment of truth. What will be decided in the days ahead goes beyond another crack at remaining EU citizens. Also to be determined is whether we continue tolerating the misrule of an alliance between a tiny sect of the moneyed elected, and a tinier cabal of billionaires whose newspapers defile the notion of a free press by intimidating MPs and inveigling readers into voting directly against their economic and social interests.

The most ambitious con trick ever attempted is a whisker from succeeding. If it does, it won’t just be the principal villains on whom tomorrow’s history undergrads will gaze in incredulous revulsion. Albeit relegated to footnotes, their useful idiots will live in infamy with them.

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