Richard North, 24/02/2018  

It has not taken very long to get a response from the European Union to Thursday's "war cabinet" outcome, a less than favourable view coming from European Council president Donald Tusk.

At the informal meeting in Brussels yesterday of the 27 heads of state or government (to which Mrs May was not invited), he dismissed the idea of "ambitious managed divergence" as "based on pure illusion", signifying a level of frustration breaking through as the "colleagues" struggle to deal with this latest round of stupidity.

Delivered as an aside to his closing remarks, Tusk was standing alongside Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, when he told reporters: "I am glad that the UK government seems to be moving towards a more detailed position. However if the media reports are correct I am afraid the UK position today is based on pure illusion. It looks like the [have your] cake [and eat it] philosophy is still alive".

He went on to say, in predictable fashion, "From the very start it has been a set principle of the EU27 that there can be no cherry picking and no single market à la carte", then adding: "This will continue to be a key principle, I have no doubt".

Juncker was more diplomatic, speaking earlier as he was doorstepped on his way into the meeting. He was, he said, reserving comment on the war cabinet meeting until he knew what the exact conclusions were.

A question on when he expected to get the detail on the meeting elicited a broad smile and the observation: "I am not the British Prime Minister. It would be good for Britain if I was!"

On the subject of detail, Irish premier Leo Varadkar largely spoke for the 27, also before the start of the meeting, He called on Mrs May to provide "real detail" on its Brexit position, reminding reporters of the Irish government view that, "we want the commitments and guarantees we were given in December written into the withdrawal agreement".

"I think we are well beyond the point of aspirations and principles. We need detail", he added, saying: "Hopefully when the prime minister speaks next week the UK will be more clear about what it wants in terms of the new relationship and will back that up with real detail; detail that can be written into a legal treaty with the EU".

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who visited Mrs May in Downing Street earlier this week, added his comments, saying: "As good friends [of the Brits], we can bring the difficult messages like I did at Downing Street, asking Theresa May to be as clear as possible on what she wants to achieve on the second phase of negotiations".

This is clearly a vein of irritation not very far from the surface and it spilled over into Mr Tusk's final remarks. He announced that he had informed the other EU leaders that he intended to present the draft guidelines on the future EU-UK relationship at the March Council.

"Our intention", he said, "is to adopt these guidelines, whether the UK is ready with its vision of our future relations, or not. Naturally it would be much better if it were. But we cannot stand by and wait".

Tusk is scheduled to meet Mrs May in London on Thursday, a day before she is due to give her final "Road to Brexit" speech, at which she is expected to set out what is being billed as her "defining vision" on the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

When he visits, the European Council president is hoping to gain some more clarity about the UK's plans next week. By that time, the Mrs May's full cabinet should have approved the ideas put forward by the "war cabinet" (or not). If they are so foolhardy as to approve them, this will confer on them the status of formal government policy.

If this happens, we will have a situation where the UK government is pursuing as a centrepiece to its Brexit negotiations a policy line which has already been rejected piecemeal by the EU. If it is presented formally, it will most certainly be rejected formally by negotiators and, if it gets that far, the full Council.

On this blog, I have been unequivocal in branding the idea of seeking mutual recognition as the basis for the UK's trading relationship as "unadulterated fantasy", which is not very far from Tusk's "pure illusion".

There really can be no other conclusion drawn and, if Mrs May and her cabinet are intent on pursuing this line, I have already asserted that our prime minister will be writing the suicide note for the Brexit talks and her own political epitaph.

The general incompetence of the May Government in its handling of the Brexit negotiations has been a constant refrain on this blog but it surely must mark a new low when the cabinet endorses a policy which they must know will be rejected by the EU.

Looking for an explanation, one could speculate that this is Mrs May's way of reconciling the conflicting – and largely irreconcilable - pressures from her own part. It may even be seen as a way of neutralising the 62 declared "ultras" who are making impossible (and largely irrational) demands.

But it hardly smacks of firm leadership if she plans on going to Brussels with a package of proposals with the intention of slinking back to London with a pile of rejection slips. And whatever happened to that "bloody difficult woman"?

Based on the past performance of Tory "rebels", she could be banking in this being sufficient to show willing, in the expectation that Mr Mogg and his not so merry men and women will then climb down.

Here, the apparent support emerging from the Labour party for a post-Brexit customs union may help, especially when health secretary Jeremey Hunt has told the Today programme that the UK must not be part of a customs union. For once, Mr Corbyn is proposing something almost as absurd as the Tory "ultras" and a senior Tory is opposing it (for the time being). This gives the backbenchers the excuse they need to climb down, so uniting the warring factions.

Short of this, there can be no real explanation or rationale for the current behaviour of Mrs May and her ministers. We would otherwise be left to conclude that we are dealing with some incredibly stupid people who actually believe that the EU will roll over and give them what they want.

Yet, if there is one, unyielding certainty, it is that the "colleagues" are not going to bend on what they regard as points of principle – red lines the width of the Channel which will not allow the watering down of "integrity" of the Single Market.

For all Mrs May's professed determination to bring her own brand of certainty to the Brexit talks, therefore, we are left in an incomprehensible situation where rationality is so far distant from the proceedings that it is impossible to predict where we go next.

Some pundits are suggesting that the inevitable outcome of this posturing will be a Tory civil war and it is not beyond the bounds that its intensity could relegate Brexit to the status of collateral damage. There is nothing so parochial as a party-political bunfight, whence all other considerations are shunted into the background.

On the other hand, if there are any sensible figures left, they must realise that if the Conservative Party really messes up Brexit, it could cost it the next general election and render it unelectable for a generation. And those same figures, if they exist, must surely recognise that Mrs May is on the slippery slope to perdition, especially when the DUP can so easily pull the plug on her aspirations.

Then, perhaps we will find that Brexit wasn't about Brexit, after all. It may be that it's really all about the Conservative Party and lancing a boil that has been festering for decades. But if the Tories choose to use Brexit merely as a convenient battlefield, they might find the nation less than forgiving when the survivors finally look up from their fratricide to take stock.

Brexit is far too important to be used in this way – or as an opportunity for already rich men to take a punt. If they do play their games, the Tories cannot bank on there not being a reckoning.

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