Maybe it’s time to play hard ball. British Prime Minister Theresa May has had a plausible excuse up to now for conceding and retreating and stepping back from the brink over and over again in her “negotiations” with Brussels. She was the leader, as she and the EU gang were fully aware, of a divided party.
At the mercy of a gaggle of her own Irreconcilable Remainers who were in league with an orchestrated campaign whose battle plan was formulated in concert with the EU protection racket enforcers (sorry, negotiating team), she appeared to have little choice but to fudge and tactically retreat whenever Brussels barked. The threat of being defeated in a parliamentary showdown which would have thrown her government into genuine danger and Brexit into total paralysis left her with little room for anything but obfuscation. Or at least, that was the claim.
There are those who would argue that a bit more noisy resolve and gumption, even under those circumstances, might have transformed the situation. But never mind. We are on the brink of a new era.
The Irreconcilables, it turns out, were not so impregnable after all. Having brought down upon their heads the tumultuous fury of a formidable swathe of the population, not least among their own constituency parties (Tory HQ, I gather, has been besieged with requests for de-selection instructions), they caved. The submission, offered with much portentous verbiage but no substantive demand for reciprocity, was total. What they were offered was euphemistically described as “neutral”. In fact, it was nothing. The war is over. In the House of Commons at least, the Remain onslaught has collapsed.
That was on Wednesday. On Thursday night, Philip Hammond took the opportunity of the traditional Mansion House speech to complain defensively about the charge that he and his Treasury were “the heart of Remain”. That is so not true, he said. Not only are we not the last stronghold of the Resistance Army but we take no side in this matter at all. We simply want whatever arrangements are best for Britain, etc, etc.
Whether you believe that or not is up to you. The important point is that the Chancellor felt compelled to say it. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem so very clever to be fighting Brexit in the last ditch. There may be a number of reasons for this. One is certainly the exasperation of the electorate who find the endless procrastination of the government inexplicable. Or, to the extent that it is explicable, they see it as the fault of the tirelessly vexatious Remain lobby — which is why they became so furious with what looked like a parliamentary ambush. Another is the escalating offensiveness of the Brussels “negotiating team” whose unpleasantness (particularly by British standards) is truly staggering. The latest threat from Michel Barnier to exclude the UK from European security arrangements, when Britain is acknowledged to have the most professional (and, through its link to the Anglophone Five Eyes network, the most comprehensive) intelligence services in the world, beggars belief.
It is hard to imagine any British prime minister in living memory making a threat as crass and irresponsible as this on the international stage. But perhaps that’s the problem. May’s entire canon of set-piece statements on the matter have been models of gracious generosity and diplomatic dignity: it’s been all about “closest possible cooperation”, and “our shared history and values”, blah-blah. And meanwhile there was Jean-Claude Juncker, the Brexiteers’ best ally, telling the Irish Parliament last week that Britain was a country that does not “yet know that they are small”. Small are we? Think this is poor little Greece you’re dealing with, do you? You ought to remember what we’re like when we get angry ... Sorry, where was I?
Indeed Brussels sent both Juncker and Barnier on this flying visit to flatter the Irish who can scarcely believe that they have become such huge stars in the global firmament. I hope they realise that when this charade is over and they have served their purpose, Brussels will go right back to hammering them into submission over their low corporation tax which is undercutting other member states and undermining the EU goal of business tax harmonisation. But in the meantime the EU will continue to incite anger and suspicion in Anglo-Irish relations which they must know have such a deeply traumatic history.
So what exactly has all this very British civility and open-handedness got for us? Given that the EU countries have at least as much (or more) to lose than we do if trade negotiations collapse, and given also that they have huge internal problems to deal with (migration) that constitute an existential threat to the entire project, what might happen if our government decided to play rough?
Or, at least, to use our generous impulses tactically as Sajid Javid has done by making a clear and decent offer to EU citizens who live here, thus wrong-footing Brussels, which has as yet made no such offer to British citizens living in EU countries.The most consistent complaint about our negotiating stance has been that we haven’t told Brussels “what we want”. That was, to a considerable extent, because the governing party, being split, could not agree on what it wanted (hard vs soft, customs agreement vs WTO rules, etc). But if the influence of the Remain camp is receding, why not state an unequivocal set of demands and go on the offensive?
If the ideological schism is defunct and the vested interests are put to flight, the technical problems should be soluble with much less difficulty. What if we were to play this theatrical game as hard as the other side? What if May stood up and retaliated against the insults and the condescension: no more Mrs Nice Girl? That seems to be what the people I hear from want — and they describe Brussels in terms far more indelicate than I could ever put into print.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Janet Daley is a political columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her two novels are All Good Men and Honourable Friends.