May’s rhetorical Brexit trap

Spot the Judas

To say that the past week has been a poor one for Article 50 would be something of an understatement: the fall-out from last Wednesday’s ‘Brexit-supper‘ culminated yesterday with Theresa May holding a press conference in front of Number 10, claiming that some Europeans were deliberately interfering in the General Election.

It would be easy to say that this is the world gone mad, but as ever, I think we have to assume that things like this do not happen lightly, but with thought and consideration.

First then the EU. The leaking of the Brexit-supper to FAZ was actually the second step of the Commission’s response, after Juncker had called Merkel next morning, leading to her comments about British ‘illusions’. But the FAZ piece was not a full-scale fingers-up: it was only available in German and in print, and took some days to filter through. This is not to say that there wasn’t intent behind it: the butter-wouldn’t-melt responses from the various Commission individuals present at the meal during this week only underline that.

Instead, it comes across as an attempt to a) demonstrate the Commission’s willingness to exploit its powers within the process, and b) nudge the British to adjust their positions to fit better with the architecture of the negotiations that the Commission has been building. If you’re being benign about it, the Commission worries that the UK hasn’t understood how things are and needs to shift itself. But that overlooks the manner in which it was done.

And this brings us to May. Even the casual observer would know that May is very flexible in her positions, at least rhetorically (see Simon Cox’s excellent thread) and that she certainly doesn’t respond well to this kind of pressure. Again, assuming the Commission knew this, then we might need to consider that they were trying to goad her into a retaliation. Which they then got.

May essentially had two options: de-escalation or ramping-up. The former would mean laughing off the matter (the ‘we don’t recognise this/Brussels gossip’ approach), but looking like she had been out-played: The latter ¬†would mean damage to the relationship, but potential gains.

My thinking here is that May feels she might be able to disconnect the public and the private rhetoric. Recall that there are no substantive talks right now and won’t be until 9 June: note also that today – 4 May – is polling day in the UK, so TV and radio coverage of this issue is not happening, providing a natural firebreak. May gets her headlines this morning – polling morning – while she opens her back channels to Brussels to say something on the lines of “you don’t mess us about and we won’t mess you about”. Tough public rhetoric, more constructive private negotiation.

It’s a calculated risk.

Whether it works is another matter. If the past week has told us anything, then it is that these will be very public negotiations, so the disconnect will be minimal, especially once the substantive issues pile up. as Jonathan Portes points out, the matter of UK/EU nationals is now set up as another bear trap for the UK, and many more will follow.

The prognosis at this stage has to be that the process has been compromised by Brexit-supper-gate (as no-one is calling it), so the key question is how much do the different sides want to make it work. Here, the assumption still remains that no one really gains from failing to reach a deal – consider May’s comments at the end of her presser on the need to avoid an economically disastrous exit – so someone’s going to have to cede substantive ground at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Of course, there still remains the abyss option. I know it remains unlikely, but there is an outside chance that May is pushing hard on making Brexit highly problematic, precisely to derail it: we hang by our fingernails over the abyss, to be gratefully rescued by a passing strong and stable leader. Oddly, May’s recent behaviour has put this back in my mind: she appears to feel so unconstrained that she might consider what would be a political play to last down the ages. Maybe that bank holiday walk produced more than one bright idea.