In its first attempt at Brexit negotiations, the UK made a fool of itself – and there's more of this to come

Tom Peck
David Davis has backtracked on the Government’s threat of withdrawing security cooperation with Europe: AFP/Getty

It’s a pity Theresa May’s barely veiled threats to use security and intelligence to play tit for tat with the EU over trade arrangements have collapsed within scarcely a day because I had made significant progress with the screenplay for my DVD box-set thriller 24: Brexit Dawn.

First light over Brussels. In a Formica laminate-veneered office with intermittent wi-fi, David Davis (Britain’s Jack Bauer) is standing over Guy Verhofstadt. Someone has placed a bomb under a nearby boulangerie but only Davis knows which one.

All his life, in the Territorial Army, in high politics, and in calling needless by-elections has been building to this moment.

“Just give us the exemptions we want, Guy. Give us the exemptions we want and nobody needs to die. All I’m asking for is tariff-free access to the single market for the new Nissan X-Trail and all this will be over.”

Verhofstadt’s eyes widen. It’s been like this for five straight hours, and no progress is being made.

“I cannot. You know I cannot. Non-members cannot have preferential conditions to members. We made this completely clear before the vote, but you were all too busy listening to Steve Hilton sitting around in his V-neck, phoning it in from California. I cannot do it. You know I cannot do it.”

“Lot of people gonna die, Guy, lot of people gonna die.”

“No one is going to die, David. We have evacuated every boulangerie in the city.”

“Lot of pastries gonna go up in smoke, Guy. Lot of mille-feuille gonna burn.”

If it seems, well, improbable, that’s because it is. It has taken the EU about five minutes to confirm there will be no bartering, no brokering of any deal in which cooperation on security and counter-terrorism can be used as leverage on anything.

David Davis suggests that was “never” the UK’s intention, even though it is all but impossible to extract any alternative meaning from the six-page letter sent to Brussels.

“No one is interested in using security as a bargaining chip,” Donald Tusk announced in Brussels on this morning. “It must be a misunderstanding. Our partners are decent and wise partners.”

Nice of you to say so, Donald. So that’s that then. We’ve also had Angela Merkel giving a flat “nein” to any possibility of bilateral discussions while the negotiations are happening. And we’ve had EU negotiators making it abundantly clear that they, not us, will decide when sufficient progress on the £50bn divorce settlement has been reached, and it will only be at that point that any discussion of trading arrangements and so on can be started.

You could say the UK is hopelessly ill-prepared, its expectations entirely unrealistic, its understanding of how this process will work overwhelmingly limited. But you only had to stop listening to Steve Hilton, former director of strategy for David Cameron, and co and start listening to Angela Merkel or François Hollande or indeed anyone at all for a few seconds last year to know it would always be thus.

That the UK’s ace of trumps – its highly respected intelligence services – has been shown to be a joker is no surprise.

Switching the cards doesn’t even bear thinking about. It is unbearable even to imagine the reaction in the UK if, say, the EU suggested it would force concessions on free movement, by threatening to withhold counter-terrorism information.

It is, indeed, so utterly daft that Donald Tusk has wisely and politely decided it can only be a misunderstanding.

In the first hours of this “historic moment from which there can be no turning back”, the UK has made an unimaginable fool of itself. Don’t be surprised to see that continue. And there are a lot more than 24 hours to go.

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