End of the affair: May finds breaking up with EU is hard to do | John Crace

John Crace
Theresa May is left with a gnawing sense of emptiness. Photograph: Reuters

In his Brussels office, President Tusk ripped open the envelope. “Dear Donald, hope you are well... blah, blah... the people of Britain have voted... blah, blah... it’s not you, it’s me... blah, blah... I really want to remain friends, but right now I need some space... blah, blah... I know I can’t expect to have my cake and eat it but if there was any chance of me having my cake and eating it, I wouldn’t say no... blah, blah... joint custody of the kids... blah, blah... Love from Theresa.”

Tusk scrunched the letter into a ball and tossed it into the bin. It was almost exactly as he had expected. Polite, verging on the over-familiar, in places; rude and a bit threatening in others. Nothing he couldn’t deal with quite comfortably. He would give as good as he got over the coming years. But what did surprise him was how emotional he felt. “We already miss you,” he muttered. “Thank you and goodbye.”

Back in London, Theresa May was also having a wobble. She had expected to feel nothing but relief at triggering article 50. No more pretending to listen to the whines of the hardcore Eurosceptic fanatics on her own benches. No more pretending to take any notice of the Scots. No more pretending to pretend that she knew what the hell she was doing. Instead she felt nothing but a sense of sadness and anticlimax. Sadness that she was finally leaving something she would actually quite miss. Anticlimax because after all the build-up she was left with a gnawing sense of emptiness.

The prime minister tried to keep her emotions in check as she delivered her statement on the triggering of article 50. “It is a plan for a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union,” she said. “A partnership of values. A partnership of interests. A partnership based on cooperation in areas such as security and economic affairs.” BFFs. Kiss, kiss, kiss.

A few Tory backbenchers began to look a little uncomfortable. They had come decked out with Union Jack ties, iPad covers and hair bows in anticipation of a glorious celebration of the nation’s liberation from the jackboot of Europe. What they were getting was more of a love letter. The longer Theresa was on her feet the more it sounded as if she was thought Brussels was heaven on Earth and was begging to rejoin the EU as soon as possible.

From time to time, Theresa’s rose-tinted fantasies got the better of her. Claiming that Britain would be stronger, fairer and more united, while Northern Ireland is in deadlock, the Scottish parliament has just voted for a second referendum and the Welsh are becoming steadily more disillusioned, indicated a loosening grip on reality.

Nor did she do herself any favours by saying: “More than ever, the world needs the liberal democratic values of Britain.” The Lib Dems couldn’t believe their luck at getting a shout out from the prime minister. Theresa didn’t even notice the irony of what she was saying and merely repeated herself after a long interruption for laughter. She was lost in a personal grief.

Jeremy Corbyn surprised no one by responding to the statement that he had expected the prime minister to make rather than the one she had made. He went off on a lonely riff about hard Brexit and bargain basement tax havens, seemingly unaware the prime minister had already committed herself to meeting Labour’s six Brexit tests. She wouldn’t, of course, but that was beside the point. What mattered was the EU love-in. On days like this the Labour leader redefines the meaning of the word mediocre.

Most of the Tory Eurosceptics – with the exception of Bill Cash, for whom the only good German is a dead German – more or less managed to keep their triumphalism in check. There would be plenty of time for crowing in the days ahead. All that mattered was that the letter had been sent; whether it was a disaster or not was neither here nor there.

Theresa’s only difficult moments at the dispatch box came when Angus Robertson pointed out that Scotland had voted to remain and that Theresa had broken her promise to agree a deal with the Scots. For the only time, Theresa looked flustered.

“My constituency voted remain,” she said. Comparing a country to a constituency was not the brightest move. Realising her mistake, she went full Maybot and repeated, “Now is not the time for a second referendum” over and over again. The SNP sniffed blood. Now might not be, but sometime soon might well be. The clock was ticking. 730 days and counting.

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