Theresa May and a moment of the purest weakness

Theresa May’s extraordinary comments this afternoon — to the effect that there are some in Brussels who are seeking deliberately to influence the UK general election by spreading fear — deserve a little deconstruction. The fact that they appear to come straight from the Donald Trump playbook is far from the least concerning aspect of them.

The EU is required, under Article 50, to negotiate. And to do that it will quite obviously — and quite reasonably — seek the best deal for the Union and its Members. It’s been fascinating to see Yannis Varoufakis enter the Brexit debate; he knows better than many how ruthless the Union can be in its negotiating tactics.

But what Article 50 does not require the EU to do is reach a deal.

And the clear message of the leak of Theresa May’s disastrous dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker is that May simply doesn’t understand this, and does not understand how the EU works. There is simply no EU interest in accommodating a nation that, the moment it leaves the EU, becomes a trading rival. The rot set in during the referendum campaign, when, amidst all the lies we electors were fed by the Leave campaign, the most pernicious perhaps was that the EU needs us more than we need them. And over the months since that referendum, the reality seems to be hitting home in Whitehall, if not in what the Brexit ministers are pleased to call their minds; talk of soft Brexit is just so much hot air. The reality is far worse, far more complex than we were told during the campaign.

May’s latest rhetoric is hardly going to make the negotiations easier — the accusation of deliberate influence is not one that the Commission or the remaining Member States will take lying down. And it is a breathtakingly stupid thing for a Prime Minister whose negotiating position is already weak to say.

I think the short answer is that May doesn’t care. Increasingly, it seems that she has written off any chance of getting a deal; we are being softened up for the hardest of hard Brexits in which, without a deal, the UK is simply cast adrift and outside the Union. No trade arrangements, no arrangements for citizens. EHIC card? Open Skies agreement guaranteeing open aviation? Environmental protection? Forget it.

May has given up on Europe — this is a cheap rant for domestic consumption, to shore up a faltering campaign in an election she is still expected to win at a canter. Ultimately, it is about a Conservative Party still conducting an internal shouting match, unable to resist a competition to see who can blame Johnny Foreigner the loudest.

In other words: this speech was cheap, vindictive, and profoundly damaging to British interests. And, as such, it is deeply, desperately demeaning to our democracy. And it is a speech that demonstrates May’s sheer weakness — as well as a deep moral and intellectual unsuitability for any kind of public office.

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