The PM's post-Salzburg bluster can’t hide the fact she’s got nothing, has achieved nothing, has done nothingby Jay Elwes / September 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
When it was announced that Theresa May’s statement today would be delayed due to a “lack of power” in No10, Twitter chortled at what sounded like an omen. But when the prime minister appeared, she was in no mood for gags.
Fresh from her appalling humiliation in Salzburg, where EU leaders took it in turns to excoriate the weakness and unworkability of her Brexit plan, May gave a terse statement, whose brevity and naked aggression expressed with ringing eloquence the depth of her personal defeat.
Make no mistake, Salzburg was a terrible, complete and resounding failure for May. Her great plan, the absurdly-named “Chequers Deal,” was laughed out of town. It was her one chance, and it ended in diplomatic catastrophe. She returned home with that unmistakable whiff of political loser, not a great look for a PM heading into conference season. Under the lights she glared out like a hanging judge.
“Yesterday Donald Tusk said our proposals would undermine the single market,” May said, her voice dripping with animus. “He didn’t explain how in any detail or make any counter-proposal. So,” she said, “we are at an impasse,” perhaps unconsciously slipping into French.
“At this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals,” said May, ignoring the fact that this was precisely what she was doing in the very speech she was delivering.
“I will not overturn the result of the referendum,” she said, “nor will I break up my country,” striking a note of real anguish that not even the rictus expression could hide.
That anguish is understandable. What May must now see is that her last chance to be the one who finally cracked Brexit has gone. Two years have elapsed since that referendum, and in all that time the government has hopped up and down on the spot, telling all-comers that it is determined to get the best deal for Britain.
And, cruel irony, the moment that a plan finally does surface—the “Chequers deal”—the cabinet nearly falls apart because of it, her party rejects it and the EU finally kills it dead in a public diplomatic slaying.
Which means that Theresa May, and therefore the government, for which read Britain, has no plan. There is nothing there.
Aware of this vacuum, May insisted that it was the EU’s job now, having rejected her plan, to present one of its own. But that kind of vapid exhortation only shows how she fails to understand the reality of Britain’s position, or to grasp who ultimately is responsible for dealing with the consequences of the Brexit vote. Remarkable that it should need saying, but Tusk is not going to plan Britain’s future on its behalf. Today, the PM seemed genuinely to assume—bizarrely—that he would do just that.
The position, then, is that in two years, the government has achieved nothing on Brexit. On the biggest questions not one proposal has been agreed. Not a single deal has been made. And it was perhaps why May’s words today, despite their barely-disguised anger and the steely delivery, rang so hollow.
Because really, despite the bluster, she’s got nothing, has achieved nothing, has done nothing. And the wild, lost look in her eyes today suggested that for a moment she thought she was getting somewhere, which makes her failure all the more cruel.
Chequers was May’s last chance to get a deal with the EU where she could hope to set the terms. That’s now gone. All that’s left is belligerence, posturing, and the slow descent to the political crunch that will devour May, her sorry government and the whole Brexit mess. What lies the other side of that is, for now, impossible to define.