Theresa May Declares War on Brussels

Well, that escalated quickly, didn’t it?

On Monday a detailed account of a private dinner between Theresa May, Brexit Secretary David Davis and Jean-Claude Juncker was reported by German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“Let’s make a success of Brexit,” the newspaper reported May as saying. To which Juncker replied that Britain was not resigning from a golf club: Brexit, by definition, could not be a success.  

May, FAZ said, was living in another galaxy.

At first Downing Street downplayed the leaked report. Davis dismissed it as “megaphone diplomacy”. Then on Wednesday the Prime Minister, on her way to the palace to formally mark the dissolution of Parliament, responded herself.

Her language was extraordinary.

"Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials,” she declared, “All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on June 8th."

She contrasted her own reasonableness with those in Brussels who “do not wish Britain to prosper”; her leadership - undoubtedly strong and stable - with that of Jeremy Corbyn.

Very well, alone. Splendid isolation here we come. Because May indeed did sound strong. I am not sure she sounded stable though. As theatre it was awesome, but these are bold accusations to lay at the door of allies.

It is not difficult to know what the purpose of the leak was: cui bono, as Cicero asked. European leaders have domestic audiences too. However negotiations go, there are going to be ramifications for the 27. This was not just a leak of a disastrous dinner though. FAZ’s report included a story of how, over dinner, Davis mocked the Prime Minister by recounting how he had taken the then Home Secretary to the European Court of Justice.

The leak was gratuitous and it was personal. May’s response may have been grubby and cynical, but she is fighting a general election: how did whoever leaked the report expect her to respond?

a bad deal is the only option

This was badly played by the EU. With Marine Le Pen at 40% in the polls it is potentially worse than foolish. Brexit has a cost to the EU. It is also a precedent.

Contrast Juncker’s attitude with Donald Tusk’s reaction on the day he received Britain’s Article 50 letter. He seemed genuinely emotional as he stated: “We will miss you.” Contrast the years of “secrecy” with which negotiators conducted TTIP with the delusions laid bare after one dinner one month into negotiations.

If the EU expects to avoid Brexit because they offer Britain a bad deal - and a bad deal is the only option - they are sorely mistaken. Juncker may have been stating what he regards as a reality, but he knows equally it will be regarded as a threat. Brexiters have already got their excuses in.

It is the Brexit paradox. By leaving the club, we resigned ourselves to an economically more disadvantageous trade arrangement with our nearest allies. Yet when we receive that disadvantage, for Brexiters it will not confirm the EU’s inherent benefits; instead it will confirm its corruptness. It’s a cake-and-eating-it thing.

It also poses a dilemma for Remainers. For most Remainers the referendum was a political and economic choice. When every international institution backed Britain’s membership - when the economic argument seemed so obvious - the vote was, in the modern vernacular, a “no brainer”. But Brexit is not about economics, it is a cultural phenomenon. And here Remainers - like me - have nothing to say. There are large parts of the country that appear not just foreign but alien. We are trapped by our seeming rationalism.

Strangely, it was not Boris Johnson or Michael Gove who were able to take advantage of this. It was Theresa May. That is why she is 20% ahead in opinion polls.

Events are defined by the reaction to them not by themselves. May just gave the bigger reaction

Brexit will be hideous. But the trouble is, Remainers seem to want it that way: we are in the world of grief-ridden politics and, like everyone, we want to be right.

At the same time, Britain is negotiating for its future economic success (or failure). One leak does not mean Theresa May’s strategy has crumbled. She has a track record of negotiating. However unreasonable her position, that it is what it is, a position. Likewise, we should be cautious about taking at face value everything EU leaders say. That is their position. It is a position backed with a loaded gun though.

By howling at this wind - whatever the justness of the cause - Remainers are building a narrative that they made Brexit fail.

Put it this way, when was the last time you enjoyed someone pointing how wrong you were? Yeah, it’s frustrating - maybe even provoked - but this is politics.

Whoever wins on June 8th, Britain will get a bad deal. May might have made the chances worse. Then again, European leaders might recognise she has an election to win. They fight elections too. However, it is not just May who is confirming stereotypes. 

Jeremy Corbyn accused the Prime Minister of wrapping herself in the Union flag. Of course she fucking did. There is no such thing as a big event. Events are defined by the reaction to them not by themselves. May just gave the bigger reaction.

It is pretty unpleasant. It was probably irresponsible. However, until Remainers understand why she did it, Brexit will mean Brexit.

@grakirby

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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