Richard North, 05/10/2017  

A Prime Minister who employs Alexander Johnson as her Foreign Secretary isn't in a particularly good position to declare that "we will provide a moral lead in the world", as she did in her lacklustre conference speech yesterday.

And setting aside the unfortunate delivery problems, the unscheduled interruption and bits of the conference slogan coming apart, starting with an "f" off the word "for", it was indeed a lacklustre speech, all 7,150 words of it.

For this blog, though, our concern is that very small component which dealt specifically with Brexit – some 337 words including the sub-header. That is less than five percent of the speech, despite the Chancellor and cough-sweet provider warning us that dealing with it "will be one of the most challenging tasks ever undertaken by a peacetime government".

That was in his own speech earlier in the conference, when he also cautioned that: "We must not downplay the difficulties nor underestimate the complexities". But if the caution was directed at Mrs May, it was wasted. She ignored his advice.

As it stood when Mrs May strode to the microphone in the conference hall, the current Brexit strategy had been decisively rejected by the "colleagues" – by Messrs Juncker and Barnier and the overwhelming majority of MEPs, who will need to approve any final deal.

That left Mrs May with three broad options. She could either have decided to walk away from the talks, she could have improved her negotiating offer or she could have asked the "colleagues" to reduce their demands and accept what she had offered.

Telling the conference that she wanted "the best Brexit deal", she started off on the right foot, declaring that "our first and most important duty is to get Brexit right". The people had decided and the government had taken their instruction. Britain was leaving the European Union in March 2019.

In one of those statements of the obvious in which politicians so love to indulge, she went on to tell us that she knew "some find the negotiations frustrating" – without actually acknowledging why this might be. But, frustrating or not, her solution was that "we approach them in the right spirit – in a spirit of cooperation and friendship, with our sights set firmly on the future". Provided we did that, she was "confident we will find a deal that works for Britain and Europe too".

As to the deal in question, she resorted to one of her little catch phrases, wanting us to be "clear" about the agreement we seek. It was the agreement she: "set out earlier this year at Lancaster House and again in my speech in Florence ten days ago".

In making this pitch, however, Mrs May did nothing other than confirm that she simply hasn't been listening. Jean-Claude Juncker had spelled it out for her only the day before, in Strasbourg, declaring that the Prime Minister's speech in Florence had been "conciliatory", but: "speeches are not negotiating positions".

What the "colleagues" want, of course, is detail – detailed responses and detailed proposals which deal with the "phase one" issues which they have identified. Mrs May has decided to ignore these and instead make a declaration of what she wants:
It's a new deep and special partnership between a strong, successful European Union and a sovereign United Kingdom. A partnership that allows us to continue to trade and cooperate with each other, because we see shared challenges and opportunities ahead. But a partnership that ensures the United Kingdom is a sovereign nation once again. A country in which the British people are firmly in control.
This "deep and special partnership", she says, "is our ambition and our offer". And in making it her "offer" she is making her stand, telling the conference: "I look forward to that offer receiving a positive response".

Mrs May must know that there can be no response, positive or otherwise. On the table are the "phase one" issues and until there has been "sufficient progress" on these, there can be no discussion on a "deep and special partnership", or any other future relationship.

In what can only be weasel words, therefore, she has told us that she believes "it is profoundly in all our interests for the negotiations to succeed". Yet she refuses to take the actions needed to make them succeed, spelling out the detail which will unlock the phase one talks.

Then, tucked in alongside – carefully disguised – is the threat: "I know that are some are worried whether we are prepared" in the event that the negotiations do not succeed, she says. And, to this she adds: "It is our responsibility as a government to prepare for every eventuality. And let me reassure everyone in this hall – that is exactly what we are doing".

So, Mrs May is refusing to set out a negotiating position which will unlock the talks, which will force Barnier to go to the European Council later this month with the only message he can credibly give: "insufficient progress".

This is a sort of "passive aggression" ultimatum. The Prime Minister is not coming out and stating flatly, "do this, or else". Rather, she says: "I hope you will do this …", knowing that it cannot happen, leading to an inevitable outcome.

Effectively, she is turning the tables on the "colleagues" and making them do the running. She's setting herself up with an alibi in the blame game, positioning the "colleagues" as the bad guys.

There is, of course, the fifth round of the talks, starting Monday. We will go through the weary charade of the Barnier/Davis press conference and it will then "go dark" until Thursday. In the closing press address, Barnier may choose his words carefully but the upshot will be that he is shunting the decision up to the European Council.

Next in this dreary progression will be the Council meeting as 27. And there can be little doubt about where that will take us. Effectively, the talks will be suspended.

In the current game plan, as we know it, the "colleagues" then start to panic at the prospect of losing all that lucrative trade with the UK. After a series of frenetic meetings of the 27, an approach will be made to the UK, asking it to resume the talks – and on the terms that Mrs May has set out.

Needless to say, not in a million years is this going to happen, leaving some to speculate that Mr Johnson is deliberately attempting to set Ms May up to fail by making demands that Brussels will never agree to – the very reverse of the scenario in which May appointed Johnson in order to see him fail.

Effectively though, if at its October meeting the European Council 27 does not allow the talks to progress to phase two, the Brexit talks will be over. Any idea of a substantive agreement being reached will have to be abandoned.

This will take us into uncharted waters, which makes it almost impossible to predict what will happen next. The parties could sit on their hands and do nothing – waiting for the 'phone to ring – until the time runs out, or there could perhaps be emergency talks aimed at keeping some trade flowing and basic services in place after 29 March 2019.

Beyond that, I'm out of ideas. Theoretically, it is possible, as Amber Rudd asserts, that there will be a breakthrough in the talks – with trade talks by Christmas. That would very much fall into line with M. Juncker's definition of a "miracle", but there can't be many people who expect one.

Alternatively, this is the start of a palace coup, in which Mrs May - cough and all - will be gone within weeks or even days, removed on hygiene grounds. That would leave it open for her successor to appoint a new negotiating team and press the reset button.

If this doesn't happen, it will be because Mrs May's potential challengers and their supporters are too divided to mount an effective coup, leaving the Prime Minister in place by default, her government held together by the sympathy vote.

Then, we are on the slippery slope to the worst of all possible worlds, the accidental Brexit, occasioned simply because no one knew how to stop it.

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