Gibraltar row shows scale of PM's Brexit challenge

Lewis Goodall, Political Correspondent

In her latter years as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher used to tell a story.

For visitors lucky enough to receive a personal tour from the PM around Chequers, she pointed out a certain desk in the 500-year-old manor house and uttered what must, to her guests, have seemed rather ominous words:

"That is the chair I sat in when I gave the order to sink the Belgrano."

Perhaps that's the sort of "resolve" Michael Howard had in mind when he told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday show:

"Thirty-five-years-ago this week another woman prime minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.

"I am absolutely certain our current Prime Minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar."

:: PM vows to get best Brexit deal for Gibraltar

When speaking of "another Spanish-speaking nation", I doubt very much the Spanish government would much appreciate the comparison with Argentina in 1982, run by a military junta.

Whatever the Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy might be, General Galtieri he ain't.

Some media outlets picked up on the comments and interpreted them as meaning, "Theresa May would go to war to defend Gibraltar".

This is a little uncharitable to the former home secretary and Conservative party leader, he didn't say that.

But the very fact he could be seen to make even a vague comparison to the Falklands War less than a week after Article 50 was triggered can hardly count as a diplomatic win.

He is a former leader of the Prime Minister's party - these sorts of things are noticed in the chancelleries of Europe, unfair or not.

At the very least it's hardly going to do much to ameliorate Anglo-Spanish relations, which have had a torrid week.

Nor for that matter will the Spanish foreign minister's comments in Spanish broadsheet El Pais, where he confirmed Spain would not veto an independent Scotland's entry into the EU.

Whether this is a storm in a teacup or the descent in a diplomatic debacle, it's indicative of the scale of the PM's challenge.

For its manifold faults, the EU was quite good at one thing: papering over the cracks of inter-state EU relations.

Tensions over issues with other EU countries like the UK-Irish border, UK's Cyprus bases and Gibraltar were (to some extent at least) eased by our mutual EU membership.

We will no longer enjoy that greasing of the wheels, and bear in mind that every one of the remaining 27 EU states has a veto over whatever the Brexit negotiations produce.

Therefore the PM hasn't just got to keep the Eurocrats in Brussels on side but also each and every government of the other 27 leaders - which could themselves change as elections come and go over the next few years.

Each have their own particular take on Brexit and the relationship their own countries have with Britain, so she can ill-afford rows like this.

The negotiations haven't even begun yet and they've already been waylaid by a Mediterranean peninsula 2.6 square miles in size.

It must make Downing St feel uneasy, at best.

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