Richard North, 03/05/2017  
 


Where the value of Sunday's FAS article (and the rest of the coverage) lies is in the insight it gave into Mrs May's thinking on Brexit, its power resting not on what was said in isolation but in confirming that which we knew or suspected.

And when we go through the substantive issues, there was in fact very little new. We were already aware, for instance, that Mrs May wanted to press ahead with talks on a free trade agreement alongside the rest of the Article 50 talks, despite the European Council having specifically rejected parallel negotiations.

We were also aware that the prime minister was reluctant to accept that progress would be dependent on the UK agreeing a single financial settlement and it thus came as no surprise that she disputed with Juncker the very idea that any cash would have to be handed over.

As to Mrs May's general knowledge of EU affairs, the fact that Mr Juncker felt it necessary to acquaint her with copies of the Croatian accession treaty and the EU-Canada trade deal is highly significant but comes as no great shock. We are entirely used to the ignorance of our politicians.

But the moment the legacy media picked up the dinner narrative and turned it into a biff-bam contest between Mrs May and her Brexiteers, and the European Union, the whole issue ceased to have any value. It started to become just another soap opera for the entertainment of the masses.

When Downing Street then distanced itself from the account, saying that it didn't recognise it, and Mrs May dismissed claims as "Brussels gossip", the scene was hardly set for a reconciliation. That, however, was only the oeuvre, paving the way for the prime minister to boast that Juncker would find her a "bloody difficult woman" when it came to the negotiations.

It is said that this was intended partly as a joke - but only partly – but it is likely to backfire by the time it is retold in the Rue de la Loi.

Insofar as this is a deliberate ploy, in the febrile atmosphere of a general election campaign, this is quite obviously intended to appeal to some sections of the electorate. Mrs May is keen to portray herself as a "strong and stable" prime minister "standing up" to Brussels. Far from seeking to reconcile differences, or playing up the claimed "joke", she is stressing how "tough" the negotiations are going to be.

Her supporters are for the moment cock-a-hoop, continuing with their line that the EU is trying to "bluff" its way out of a weak negotiating position, braying that Mr Juncker is bent on trying to "punish" Britain for voting Leave. As the situation develops, though, mutual recriminations are increasing the divide, with Brexiteers charging that the Juncker's chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, has been attempt deliberately to undermine Mrs May.

When it comes to a confrontation, though, this is a contest that the UK cannot win. The "colleagues" have set out their stall in their negotiating guidelines, and Mr Barnier is planning to unveil further details today in a draft negotiating mandate. To this, the Financial Times is adding fuel to the flames with somewhat spurious calculations suggesting that the "divorce bill" might climb to €100 billion.

Yet, the initiative is with the EU. All their negotiators have to do is sit tight and do nothing, allowing the UK to expend its energies on fruitless posturing. All the while, the clock ticks and the countdown continues. The UK is the petitioner here and will eventually have to come to the table and make concessions in order to get a deal.

For Mrs May now to ramp up the tension, therefore, does not seem to be the brightest of strategies. She is already set to win the election by a handsome margin so has nothing to gain electorally by taking a hard line at this stage. And a healthier majority is not likely to impress the "colleagues" and any extra seats she stands to gain – if any – are not going to strengthen her position in Brussels.

One wonders, therefore, what her long-term game plan really is. Under normal circumstances, where trust and mutual respect are normally considered essential, there seems no logic in Mrs May going out of her way to antagonise partners prior these sensitive and complex negotiations. Far from being "bloody difficult", it strikes me she is being "bloody stupid".

Whatever she thinks she might be achieving, there is building a degree of instability here that cannot be sustained. If someone does not defuse the tension, then there is a chance of an irreconcilable breakdown, leading precisely to the failure which Juncker has been predicting.

Already, we're seeing in The Sun a report that, as the war of words continues to escalate, Mrs May "will be barred from negotiations with other heads of state" and will only be allowed to talk to Barnier, in his position as chief negotiator.

As stands, though, there is no possible way of predicting where this is going to go. Mrs May's behaviour does not seem rational – not by any measure that we would rely on. That leads us to the worrying conclusion that the "colleagues" really have correctly assessed her – that she really is in another galaxy.

The only other conclusion we might come to is that Mrs May herself is confronting the futility of her own position – seeking a free trade agreement that, even if delivered, will not produce the results she wants of the UK needs.

That leaves her with the stratagem of blame displacement, seeking to position the intractable, and "unreasonable" EU as the cause of the coming failure. That may play well to her tethered vote, but the economic and political consequences are likely to be dire – and uncontrollable.

Looking at the situation in the round, there does not at this stage seem to be a way out. Unless we are grossly misreading the signs – which is always possible – we seem to be sliding inexorably down that slope to failure, with no ability to influence events.

This is the "accidental Brexit", about which we've written previously – a disaster in the making because no one knew how to stop it. There again, in six weeks, we could all be dismissing current events as "election fever", as things return to what amounts to normal, and the negotiations proper start.

If that is not the case, then we could be about to find out what the consequences of a "no deal" look like, with a prediction that it will remove the Conservatives from office for a generation.






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