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Brexit: no more cake for Mrs May

2018-09-21 08:57:02

On 7 July, in the wake of the now infamous Chequers meeting, I wrote of what has now become known as the "Chequers plan" that: "the precise reasons for the EU's rejection, when it comes, will not be at all difficult to work out".

It was always going to be the case that the EU would reject the plan but, at that point, I reasoned that it would be given the deep six by the European Council at the October meeting. What no-one reckoned on was it being thrown out at the informal European Council at Salzburg.

In fact, the balance of opinion was that the "colleagues" would give Mrs May a few soft plaudits to help her through the Tory conference, on the basis that weakening her at this stage might open the way to a leadership election and the prospect of Johnson moving into No.10.

This, the BBC's Katya Adler admits was on the basis of multiple briefings in advance of the European Council meeting, in "off-the-record conversations" with those ubiquitous, anonymous "European diplomats".

This had crystallised as the accepted narrative as early as 4 September, when we had the Guardian has the EU27 "planning a 'carrot and stick' approach to Brexit, offering Theresa May warm words on the Chequers proposals to take to the Conservative conference alongside a sharp warning that they need a plan for Northern Ireland within weeks".

That narrative was still current more than a week later when the Economist on 13 September informed us mere mortals that, "Next week Mrs May will lobby her fellow EU leaders at an informal summit in Salzburg. They will listen politely and are likely to avoid declaring Chequers dead".

But, for some pundits, this intelligence wasn't good enough to demonstrate their insider credentials. They had to go further. Pre-empting the Economist, we had Bruno Waterfield in The Times, on 6 September, followed by Alex Barker and George Parker, in the Financial Times on the 10th, with their own line.

Joined by the Parliament Magazine, they were predicting that the European Council was ready to give Michel Barnier a new mandate "to close Brexit deal", in what was described by the FT pair as "a conciliatory move" that would "bolster Theresa May as she suffers savage attacks from Brexiters at home".

Interestingly, the pundit's pundit, Tony Connelly – RTÉ's Europe editor – was having none of it, arguing on 15 September that such reports were "false". To him, "all the signals" were "that the most Theresa May can expect is some positive words, and at the very least, a hope that the EU-27 won't say anything that kills off her Chequers plan altogether".

Two days later, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC's star reporter, on 17 September was also reporting that "we may see friendlier rhetoric this week at an EU leaders' shindig in Salzburg". That same day, ITV News correspondent Angus Walker was confidently asserting that: "There is feeling around Westminster and Brussels that a Brexit deal could be within touching distance".

Such was the mood that the Irish Times was retailing news that the pound had risen in value, "buoyed by reports of progress on the Border question, an obstacle to Brexit that diplomats will seek to overcome at a an European Union summit later this week".

A day later, in an analytical piece, Peter Foster, writing for the Telegraph, advanced the proposition that a resolution must be found "between Salzburg and November's 'emergency", merely conceding that: "No one should expect this to be easy".

For the Spectator on 19 September, that other star of stage and screen, Robert Peston, was prepared to guess the leaders at Salzburg "will conclude that ripping the heart out of the PM’s Chequers plan is simply too bad manners at this juncture – since they'll fear the PM would never survive".

Wunderkind James Forsyth, in the print edition of the magazine did not even get that far, focusing his predictive powers on the latest "bubble" obsession, the so-called "blind Brexit".

What is very clear, therefore, is that no one was expecting what has actually happened. Even on 20 September, with the European Council under way, the all-knowing Politico didn't see the storm coming.

Keeping in with the prevailing narrative, it wrote that, "despite continuing disagreements, particularly over Ireland, the contours of a deal on a withdrawal treaty seem to be in sight. More important, at the moment, seems to be to keep everything on an even keel until U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May gets through her Conservative Party conference, which begins later this month".

Summing up the actual events, we have the Guardian headlining: "May humiliated by Salzburg ambush as she fights to save Chequers plan", with the sub-heading, "PM on the defensive after EU leaders take turns to rubbish her plan – just a week before the Conservative conference".

After having gallantly offered cake but "no cherries" to Mrs May, Donald Tusk had cut off future supplies. In his post-meeting review, he broke the news that "Everybody shared the view" of the Chequers proposal that, "the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work. Not least because it risks undermining the Single Market". The game was over.

French president Emmanuel Macron then plunged the dagger in, announcing that the plan was "not acceptable", then accusing: "Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it's going to bring a lot of money home" of being "liars".

Angela Merkel also pitched in, confirming that the EU was "united that, in the matter of the single market". There can be "no compromises", she said, adding: "No-one can belong to the single market if they are not part of the single market".

A "clearly nervous and angry" Mrs May was left to hold her own press conference, described in a devastating review by John Crace. Under his headline of "Theresa May in denial after her Salzburg ordeal", he had the prime minister pretending that nothing had changed.

Still arguing that: "Our white paper remains the only serious and credible proposal on the table for achieving that objective", she told reporters that EU leaders were engaged in "negotiating tactics " designed to throw her off course. "I have always said these negotiations were going to be tough", she added. "And at various stages of these negotiations, tactics would be used as part of those negotiations".

Needless to say, commentators have been quick off the mark to explain that the events of Salzburg were all so predictable, George Eaton of the New Statesman claiming that Chequers was always doomed and that, "The rejection of Theresa May's plan was inevitable".

Peter Foster ventures that, "in the absence of an 'easy solution', it seems as if Brexit enters a new world of hard choices in the run-up to the Oct 18 meeting of the European Council".

But, of course, there never was an "easy solution" and there is no new world. There were only the delusions of Mrs May and her advisors, who believed against all the odds that Chequers provided a solution. But, from the very start, it was obvious that it provided no answers, and now the delusions have come crashing down. And if the media didn't see it coming, neither did Mrs May.

Cynically, however, Katya Adler suspects that a theatrical play may be in progress. "If Theresa May can survive this next political storm at home", she writes, "it rather suits both the EU and the UK in the long term to have the public perception of Brexit negotiations now as fraught. So that if a Brexit deal does finally emerge later this autumn, the perception will be that it was hard fought and hard won".

That, though, would rather pre-suppose that there is an alternative plan that the two sides could agree on. But, as Pete avers (yet again), the only practical way out is the Efta/EEA option. And that has been so comprehensively ruled out by Mrs May that its resurrection is not a viable political proposition.

From the very beginning, to this current mess, we've had the politicians and the media faffing around, obsession over cod solutions, the latest one of which has crashed and burned. Now, collectively, they will need a new narrative to sustain them.

Of the next developments though, Tusk has made it clear that there will be an "emergency summit" in November, only if the European Council in October determines that there is a realistic chance of concluding as deal. With the "bloody difficult woman" in denial, there is little room for optimism.

The sins and failures of the past are now coming back to haunt us. The days of cake are over, and we'll soon be back to stale bread and water.