Paris Gourtsoyannis: New tactics needed for Brexit talks

Theresa Mays dinner with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was less amicable than it appeared. Picture: Getty Images
Theresa Mays dinner with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was less amicable than it appeared. Picture: Getty Images
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Sticking to campaign slogans may lead to election victory but won’t work in Brussels, says Paris Gourtsoyannis

Tony Blair, in his memoir A Journey, described how he saw off four Conservative leaders on the way to three back-to-back election victories by defining his opposite numbers in subtle but devastating terms.

It wasn’t about the pithy one-liner or the wounding put-down, but rather making casual observations that stuck in voters’ minds and crippled his opponent’s ability to be seen as a potential leader.

“I never made it overly harsh,” he wrote. “I always tried to make it telling. The aim was to get the non-politician nodding.”

John Major was dismissed as “weak”, William Hague as “better at jokes than judgment,” Michael Howard was labelled “opportunist”, while David Cameron was “a flip-flop”.

“Expressed like that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring,” Blair added, “but that’s their appeal. Any one of these charges, if it comes to be believed, is actually fatal.”

It is 20 years and a day since the historic victory won by Blair’s Labour party, recognisable now only by name, and another landslide is being built on similarly mundane but devastating personal judgments.

Theresa May’s campaign style in the first few weeks has infuriated her opponents and journalists alike.

May has stuck to her core message with Prussian discipline and total disrespect for the boredom of political reporters. A Conservative government would offer “strong and stable” leadership, while Labour and the other opposition parties would result in a “coalition of chaos”.

In her defence, the Prime Minister has covered a lot of ground, and hasn’t been afraid to step on to her rivals’ turf with visits to North-east Scotland, south Wales and Leeds. But she had brought new meaning to Willie Whitelaw’s quip about going “round and round the country stirring up apathy”.

For someone who has refused to take part in TV debates out of a desire to speak directly to ordinary people on the doorstep, her helicopter campaigning hasn’t thrilled.

Tightly stage-managed visits to remote village halls and shuttered businesses whose staff have been sent home or sworn to silence when questioned by journalists suggest a campaign terrified of an unscripted moment.

There are good reasons to fear the consequences of a uninspiring campaign, if it carries on like this. With voters already disenchanted with politics, election fatigue setting in and the Tories ready to weigh their votes, party leaders have a duty to fight a possible collapse in turnout.

But by Blair’s measure of destroying the opposition by defining it, May’s campaign is a triumph.

Voters have long since made up their mind on the key question in a short campaign dominated by a single issue. Who do you want to go into Brexit talks on behalf of the UK – Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May? The answer may be choppering in to land on a golf course near you.

At 61 per cent, May’s score in polling on who would make the best Prime Minister breaks the record since Ipsos-Mori began asking in 1979. Meanwhile, Corbyn’s favourability rating as measured by YouGov last week hit an all-time low of minus 42 per cent.

Count the pages in the Tory manifesto when it comes out in the next fortnight. If the public have already made up their mind on who should be Prime Minister, why distract them with policies?

No, the problem isn’t the presidential tactics being deployed in the election. It’s that they are being applied to governing, too.

May insists this election is about strengthening her hand and giving the UK the best chance in Brexit negotiations. In practice, all it has done is distract from just how badly those negotiations have begun.

The Prime Minister already had a majority of 384 for triggering Brexit, having outflanked Labour and overcome her own rebels. European leaders look upon the month and a half delay to serious talks with mild annoyance.

They aren’t wasting their time, though. Member states signed off their negotiating objectives in a matter of minutes over the weekend in a show of unity. Those guidelines rule out much of the UK’s wishlist.

Individual governments have also been leveraging their own advantages. Spain has already been offered a say over the future of Gibraltar. In what should be a deeply worrying sign for ministers, Ireland – once touted as the UK’s closest ally and best asset in Brexit talks – has now secured a commitment that, like East Germany in 1990, Northern Ireland could rejoin the EU automatically in the event of a border poll on Irish reunification.

But the most damaging signal ahead of Brexit talks came at the weekend, with the publication of a leaked account of a Downing Street dinner involving May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

The meeting was on the evening of the last PMQs before dissolution, and was accompanied by a bland Number 10 statement about useful talks. It therefore passed with little comment in the domestic media.

Those briefed by the EU side had a story to tell. One of the Prime Minister’s key advisers, Nick Timothy, wasn’t there despite Juncker’s top aide making the trip. May allegedly told her guests she would deliver a successful Brexit within two years, that the UK would hold on to key benefits of EU membership, and that it didn’t owe a penny of its suggested £60bn liabilities.

And, she is reported to have said, all negotiations should remain secret. The whole account was promptly leaked to a German Sunday newspaper.

It is as worrying that there was little Downing Street briefing around the meeting as it is that Juncker reportedly told May the EU is not a golf club, and her approach meant there were 50/50 odds of no Brexit deal at all.

May’s tactics might win the election. In a negotiation to secure the country’s future, they look less clever.