Richard North, 19/05/2017  
 


With no sense of irony, Theresa May's Conservatives have chosen for their slogan to grace the front page of the party's 2017 manifesto, the phrase "forward together".

This self-same phrase, however, has historic cadences. It had been used in his "blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech by Winston Churchill on 13 May 1940 – in office for only three days - just after the German invasion of France and the Low Countries.

Latterly, it graced the famous propaganda poster (pictured above) showing Churchill against a bellicose background of fighter aircraft and tanks thundering across a plain, firing their guns at an unseen enemy.

At the time the poster was produced, a cynical pundit could have had a field day. The aircraft shown were early model Mk1 Hurricanes, still fitted with fixed, two-bladed wooden propellers. These delivered such poor performance that the fighters proved easy meat against Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

As for the tanks pictured, these are Vickers Medium Mk IIs. Obsolete at the outbreak of war, they never saw service against the Germans as they were withdrawn from combat units by November 1939.

The "take home" message from the poster, therefore, could have been that, under a Conservative prime minister, you will be fed vacuous slogans, fitted up with obsolete kit and sent out to be slaughtered by a better-equipped enemy. How little, you might think, things have changed.

Certainly, in the vacuous slogans department, the current manifesto excels. It tells us that "we will enter the negotiations in a spirit of sincere cooperation" and we are "committed to getting the best deal for Britain". Then, the manifesto tells us: "We will make sure we have certainty and clarity over our future, control of our own laws, and a more unified, strengthened United Kingdom".

But, as far as "certainty and clarity" goes, all we get is that Theresa May's Conservatives "will deliver the best possible deal for Britain as we leave the European Union delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit".

The only trouble is that her "smooth, orderly Brexit" displays all the characteristics of a Vickers Medium Tank. Had it been used in combat, its 8mm armour would have made it a death trap, while the best that can be said of its reliability was that it gave its crews plenty of experience in problem solving.

In seeking to convince us that Mrs May should lead us to the sunlit uplands, the prime minister is relying on her "twelve principles" laid out in her Lancaster House Speech. And in particular, she is taking us down the road towards a "new deep and special partnership with the European Union".

Such is the unreality of this document, though, that our prime minister believes it is necessary to agree the terms of this future partnership alongside our withdrawal. This is despite her having been told many times, and without equivocation by the "colleagues" that this is not possible. Barnier himself has stressed that there can be no concessions on a "phased approach".

But, not only does Mrs May disregard this advice, she also believes that it is possible to reach agreement on this "new deep and special partnership" within the two years allowed by Article 50. This much we know because this is stated in the manifesto.

The only problem is, as even the dreadful Laura Kuenssberg managed to notice, if you are looking for details in the manifesto on how Mrs May is going to perform this miracle, you are going to be disappointed. What is more, even on this day of days when Mrs May has paraded her beliefs in front of the world, Mr Barnier has been reciprocating with candour of his own.

The chief negotiator, it appears, has told commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, and other senior officials that the so-called "divorce bill" element could collapse the talks. The essence of this is that, if the EU insists on sticking to a phased approach, the talks cannot progress beyond this first hurdle.

Barnier senses that hopes of coming to an agreement on the first phase by the end of the year are "over-optimistic", but if there is no compromise on the phasing, then the talks simply have nowhere to go.

If we now turn to Mrs May's manifesto, we find that she concedes that the negotiations "will undoubtedly be tough", and continues to believe that "no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK". The stage is set for precisely the collapse that Barnier fears.

Behind all this, though, is that beguilingly simple and incontrovertible premise – one that Mrs May consistently evades. This inescapable truth is that impossible means impossible. Negotiating a "new deep and special partnership" along the lines that Mrs May wants (or any other lines) is simply not possible.

From there, we have to face facts. Not even the dimmest of creatures could fail to understand that, with negotiations of this complexity, a full agreement within two years cannot happen. Gradually, therefore, discussion has been shifting to the prospect of a transitional deal and a means of buying time for a full settlement.

But what is absent from this manifesto – completely absent – is any mention of transition. It simply isn't there. Mrs May has set out an all-or-nothing scenario of a deal in two years or she walks away.

What, in effect, this manifesto has done, therefore, is pave the way for what Mr Barnier fears (as do so many of us) - a disorderly exit. Mrs May has made it perfectly clear that that this is on the cards. It is written into the manifesto, by act and omission. This election gives her that mandate, if she chooses to exercise it.

Hidden in plain sight, that is the true message of this manifesto. Mrs May has awarded herself a blame-free license to fail. Having set herself the impossible task of securing her "deep and special partnership", she has engineered the implied permission of the electorate to walk when she fails to get it.

To that extent, the "colleagues" are being outflanked. Doubtless, they believe they are negotiating with a rational entity, a government that actually wants a deal. But the confirmation that they are not is too obvious to be ignored. On the one hands, they could not have made it clearer that they intend to follow their "phased approach" to the negotiations. On the other, Mrs May now makes it just as clear that she rejects this approach.

In between, there is no room for compromise. The stage has been set where both parties have stated positions so distinct and so separate that, for there to be progress, one or other of the parties has to cave in and agree to an unconditional surrender.

Once the negotiating guidelines had been approved by the European Council, this locked in the "colleagues" to their position. The EU negotiators have no mandate to give Mrs May what she is demanding. Now, with this manifesto, Mrs May has locked the British government into an equally rigid position – assuming the Conservatives win the election, which is something of a foregone conclusion.

Nevertheless, one still hopes that this is pre-negotiation posturing – that concessions will be made and that the parties will settle down to a mutually acceptable position. But, if that really is the case, then Mrs May has made it very difficult for her new government to give any ground in the post-election period, without seriously damaging her own credibility.

Thus, if we take this manifesto at face value, it is as much a suicide note as facing the German hordes in a Vickers Medium Tank or a Hurricane with a wooden propeller. "Forward together" Mrs May wants us to go, but the direction she wants seems to be straight over the cliff.






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