When Theresa May first said that no Brexit deal for Britain is better than a bad Brexit deal for Britain, everyone assumed they knew what she meant – and that SHE knew what she meant.
Everyone assumed she meant that we’d be better off without any deal at all than with a bad deal.
Because that’s what “no deal is better than a bad deal” seems to mean, right?
If that’s really what it means, the UK Treasury and Bank of England brainboxes have now made the PM look a bit silly by contradicting her and insisting that no deal would be a lot worse, economically, than any kind of deal, good, bad or indifferent.
But what if “no deal is better than a bad deal” is capable of another meaning?
After all, the sneaky ability of English to be misconstrued has often been very successfully exploited by British diplomats in European Union negotiations over many years.
Indeed, linguistic ambiguity spices the wording of most EU Treaties, precisely – or, imprecisely – to win agreements, even at the risk of some post-facto argy-bargy over the exact interpretation of a key phrase in different language versions of the text.
This kind of ambiguity used to be considered an obstacle to clarity and is at the heart of most political satire and all of Theresa May’s Brexit language.
But a few years ago linguistic academics expounded a new theory that ambiguity actually helps communication and that people are quite capable of “disambiguating” an ambiguous form of wording based on the context.
I present to you the wise words of MIT cognitive science professor Ted Gibson: “Various people have said that ambiguity is a problem for communication, but the fact that context disambiguates has important ramifications for the re-use of potentially ambiguous forms. Ambiguity is no longer a problem — it's something that you can take advantage of, because you can reuse easy words in different contexts over and over again."
This seems to ignore the fact that if communicators avoid ambiguity altogether there is no need for their audiences to disambiguate.
But the point apparently is that ambiguity improves language efficiency by allowing for the re-use of short, efficient words that audiences can easily interpret with the help of context.
This clearly includes gems such as “Take back control” and “Brexit means Brexit”, but let’s get back to the phrase the PM coined nearly two years ago when setting out her Brexit negotiating red lines: “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”
It seems to suggest that no deal at all would be preferable to a bad deal.
But try it this way: “(There is) no deal (which) is better than a bad deal.”
In other words, there is no deal that we could get that could be better than a bad deal because bad is as good as it gets.
If I was the PM’s communications chief I would now steer my leader towards acknowledging that this interpretation is what she meant all along, as it precisely matches the reality in which we find ourselves in.
And on this historic day when the rest of the EU agreed the terms of the withdrawal agreement, she wouldn’t even have to admit that the bad deal she’s got is a bad deal, because Jean-Claude Juncker clearly said that the bad deal she’s got is as good as it’s going to get which makes it a good deal and not bad deal at all.
After all they’ve been through so far, I’m sure the great British public can disambiguate that without too much trouble.