Only deluded – or calculating – Brexiteers could draw any comfort from the Prime Minister’s bulldog spirit, writes Euan McColm
In the bizarre alternative reality inhabited by ardent Brexiteers, it was Churchillian stuff. Having been told by fellow European leaders on Thursday that her proposals for how the UK’s departure from the EU should proceed were unworkable, the Prime Minister went – according to headlines in yesterday’s pro-Brexit tabloids – full stateswoman.
Whether or not you agree with the assessment that Theresa May’s response to the EU was “her finest hour” will depend upon your capacity for self-delusion.
Yes, it was certainly true that when the she reacted to the EU’s humiliating dismissal of her proposals – the so-called Chequers Plan – she did so while standing at a podium, flanked by Union Flags. People whose hearts are stirred by the sight of leaders and flags will have lapped that up.
All that was required for anyone seduced by this imagery to fully buy into the idea that this was the PM at her most dynamic was for them to then ignore what she said.
Anyone paying the slightest attention to the content of May’s statement could not, surely, have maintained the pretence that we were witnessing a powerful leader at her very best for long.
A simple, irritating truth has existed since the moment her predecessor, David Cameron, decided he could silence the Eurosceptics in his party and stall the rise of Ukip by offering a referendum on EU membership that he would win. This truth is that there are no circumstances in which it would make sense for the remaining EU states to offer a departing member preferential treatment.
The hucksters and spivs who led the victorious Leave campaign in 2016 may have described a future in which leaders of all nations would trip over each other in the stampede to offer trade deals to the UK, they may have promised that the EU would accede to every demand made by British negotiators, but they lied.
Pumped up, preening little men – or should that be saviours of British sovereignty? – painted a picture of a UK strengthened by isolating itself.
Left, after Cameron fled the scene of the crime, to make Brexit work as painlessly as possible, May has dialled down the hyperbole about life after EU membership, but she shares with the fiercest Brexiteers a gift for kidding herself.
It took two years for the PM to come up with the Chequers Plan – “we’d like to leave please, but we want a free trade deal and no hard border with Ireland” – and minutes for leaders of 27 EU countries to decide to put a match to it.
What else did anyone expect?
With right-wing nationalist movements agitating across Europe for the break-up of the EU, the minds of leaders were always going to be concentrated on sending out the strongest possible message that leaving wouldn’t be easy.
But even if there were no such pressing political dimension to the current situation, would we really expect the response of EU member states to be any different?
If you walk away, you walk away. You can’t expect to abandon a project and then demand some of its benefits.
The Prime Minister’s statement on Friday was vintage stuff for fans of pathos. There she stood, flag-flanked, and in her sternest tones warned our European partners of the consequences of a breakdown in Brexit negotiations.
It was pitiful, of course.
“Throughout this process,” she said, “I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same, a good relationship at the end of this process depends on it.”
The UK may indeed expect respect, though some of us may feel that the decision to depart the EU demands nothing but contempt, but it is not entitled to it. Leaders of EU nations are under no obligation to treat seriously proposals that they believe to be impractical, whether logistically or politically.
The suggestion that a “lack of respect” may affect the quality of the future relationship between the EU and the UK was a pleasingly comic touch,
No politician would take this threat seriously. Why should they? What exactly is May or anyone else going to do to make the EU pay for its impudence?
The Prime Minister also raged that, at “this late stage in the negotiations” it was unacceptable for one side to reject another’s proposals without the provision of a “detailed explanation and counter proposals”.
Who says? So far as I can see, the EU is entitled to reject any and all of the UK’s proposals without so much as a word of justification at any time of its choosing. The EU holds all the cards in this game and it has done since the UK voted in 2016 to leave.
In the baffling world of the Brexiteer, the PM is showing these foreign sorts who’s boss. If they won’t deal with her then, boy, had they better brace themselves (for what, exactly, remains unclear).
Tabloid headlines about the Prime Minister getting tough mask the reality that all she has to offer are tough words. When it comes to Brexit, the UK will leave on terms dictated by the EU. This was always going to be so, no matter how many times the likes of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg may have claimed, during the referendum campaign and since, that the EU would do as the UK wished.
May’s utterly unconvincing impersonation of a women with a clue about what she was doing on Friday provided the Labour Party with the perfect opportunity to strike. Here was Jeremy Corbyn’s chance to declare Brexit a disaster and to eviscerate the political frauds who have led us to where we now stand, braced for the worst that departure from the EU without a deal will throw at us.
Instead, Corbyn suggested it was time for the EU and UK to stop playing games because a no-deal Brexit “was not an option”.
In common with the Prime Minister, Corbyn labours under the misapprehension that the EU has any obligations towards the UK.