Richard North, 23/09/2018  

It is axiomatic that political leaders facing intractable domestic problems tend to look for foreign adventures to divert attention from their difficulties. The corollary is that when leader crash and burn on foreign fields, they face renewed opposition from their home base, whence long-neglected difficulties return to haunt them.

Thus, as long as Mrs May had us all focused on the Brexit talks and there was a prospect of movement in Brussels, she managed to keep leadership challenges and other distractions at bay. But now that Salzburg has so spectacularly backfired on her, the home front has erupted.

Much as she would like to have herself cast as a titanic figure, bulldog at her side, fending off the Brussels bullies – the initial response of the likes the Express - political realities are reasserting themselves.

The Sunday Times, for instance (along with the Mail), is talking general elections, with Theresa May's aides secretly planning for a snap election in November to save the Brexit talks and her job. The Sun, on the other hand, is carrying a denial with its headline declaring: "Not another election: Theresa May denies claims she's planning another snap election".

The Telegraph has a "Tory donor" threatening to fund a breakaway party. The Observer has the Labour Party's Tom Watson tell Corbyn that the party must support another referendum and the Independent reports a Labour plan to trigger an early election "within days" if Theresa May’s Brexit deal is defeated in parliament.

What I don't see on any of the main pages though is any attempt at a post mortem at to why Mrs May failed to convince the "colleagues" that the Chequers plan was the one and only true plan or, more importantly, why it was that the prime minister had convinced that her plan stood the slightest chance of succeeding.

We all know the genesis of the plan, an attempt to carve out a compromise position that would unite her fractious cabinet and then her party behind a single position. But it is a very long way from producing some that will keep the Tories happy and then believing that this is something the Brussels will buy.

A clue of the mindset came last Tuesday when Dominic Raab was headlined saying that it was "the EU's turn to compromise on Brexit", with Mrs May apparently making a similar pitch at the Salzburg European Council, while also being prepared to compromise further.

Perversely, shortly after Mrs May had made her address to the Council, the Independent's Jon Stone was writing that a deal was in the air. The combination of concessions – with Britain accepting regulatory checks at ports and the EU moving some customs checks in-land –appeared to clear the path for a potential solution.

The fact is that this was another paper that didn't see the rejection coming. But the key issue is the way Mrs May has been treating the negotiations. Right from the start, alongside David Davis, she has been behaving as if she was trying to buy a Turkish carpet from a Middle East souk, adopting the classic bartering style which has both sides starting from extreme positions and gradually narrowing their differences in a series of compromises until they reach a deal.

Such a stratagem was never going to work, but equally implausible was her bid to sell her "Chequers plan" to the general public. This is the theme of the EU piece in Booker's column today, written before we knew the outcome of Salzburg.

Booker notes that Theresa May had posted on Facebook a short film in which she explains why it is that there is only way to get "a good deal" for the UK on Brexit.

To make the case, she starts by saying that the EU has only "put two options on the table". One is the Canada-type trade deal which is unacceptable because it would mean breaking up the United Kingdom and staying in "the Customs Union".

The other is a "relationship built on the one Norway has with the EU". It would mean accepting "free movement of people", we would "still have vast membership bills”" and we would again still be members of "the Customs Union which would mean we couldn't strike our own trade deals".

Says Booker, none of this is true. Although Norway is completely outside the EU (and three-quarters of its laws), and as part of the wider EEA has full access to the markets of the Member States, it is not in the Customs Union, to which only EU members can belong.

Furthermore, Norway makes no contributions to the Brussels budget and, as a member of Efta, it is party to a long list of trade deals with the outside world. And parties to the EEA agreement (Article 112) can impose selective controls on migration from the EU.

But what is so utterly bizarre is what Mrs May asserts when it comes to selling "Chequers". Then she claims as its advantages the right to make trade deals with the rest of the world; the right to control EU immigration; and the fact that we could be outside the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. Yet, all of these rights equally apply to Norway.

Even more relevant is that her cockamamie Chequers plan, attempting to split "goods" from "services", has already been rejected as unworkable by virtually everyone else, from the EU itself to the "ultra-Brexiteers" in her own party.

Thus concludes Booker, there is no way, as Mrs May claims, that it could guarantee "frictionless" trade, or solve the Irish border problem. So why, he asks, "in seeking to discredit the only workable alternative on offer from the EU, does she have to say so many things that are simply not true?"

On this, Booker and I have many discussions as to whether Mrs May is telling the lie direct, or is simply deluding herself. I take the more rigorous view, but concede that it is possible that she is so far from understanding the nature of the EU that she can have convinced herself that she is doing the right things.

Here, we are possibly paying the price for the political classes having isolated themselves from the reality of the EU and its predecessors for the last 40 years, refusing to engage in discussion of its nature and ambitions.

Thus, we may well be dealing with a structural ignorance where the entire band of Tory politicians really have no idea about how to deal with the EU, what it can do and, more importantly, what it can't.

Endlessly, now, we are hearing calls for the EU to be "flexible" yet anyone with even a passing knowledge of how the EU works will understand that it is not capable of flexibility in matters dictated by treaty law. That, after all, is one of the reasons why so many of us wanted to leave the EU.

But if Mrs May really believes that the EU can barter in the manner of the archetypal shopkeeper in the souk, it is no surprise that she expects her "compromise" to be met with a matching move by the "colleagues". In her mind, the very fact that Chequers is a compromise is sufficient for the EU to accept it.

And that is what really went down at Salzburg. Mrs May touted her "compromise" in anticipation of a reciprocal move. Instead, the EU leaders stuck to principles – as anyone who knew the EU would have expected. This is what they do. It is written into their DNA. And, on that basis, Chequers was always doomed to failure, as indeed Mrs May was always doomed to believe it could be a success.

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