Theresa May and Boris Johnson moved to cool tensions with the European Union over Gibraltar on Monday, dismissing the notion of military escalation and hinting that a conciliatory approach would be matched by British goodwill on security issues.
As the Spanish foreign minister suggested that British alarm over Gibraltar showed that “someone in the UK is losing their cool”, May sought to move on from the aggressive rhetoric that followed the publication of the EU council’s draft guidelines, including former Conservative leader Michael Howard’s comparisons with the Falklands War, by describing her approach as “jaw-jaw”.
Meanwhile, Johnson prepared for a meeting with his German counterpart, Sigmar Gabriel, where he will insist that Gibraltar must not be a bargaining chip – but will also promise that Britain will not use defence and security issues for leverage.
The foreign secretary will tell Gabriel at a meeting in London that the UK wants a “deep and special partnership” after leaving the EU.
But a Foreign Office source indicated that Johnson would stress that this “should not be like a divorce and we should enter discussions in a positive way”.
Johnson will talk to his counterpart about developing the “bilateral relationship” that he will say predates membership of the EU, as well as hopes to hammer out a trade deal with the bloc. But ahead of the meeting, Gabriel made clear his reservations about the possibility of completing the process in two years, telling the Independent it would be a “laborious endeavour” and suggesting the countries would get “as far as we can”.
Aboard her flight to Jordan at the beginning of a three-day trip, May met a direct question about whether the UK could conceivably declare war on Spain with laughter.
“What we are doing with all European countries in the European Union is sitting down and talking to them. We are going to talk to them about the best possible deal for the United Kingdom and for those countries, Spain included,” she said. “It’s definitely jaw-jaw.”
At the Downing Street lobby briefing on Monday morning, the prime minister’s spokesman ruled out sending a Falklands-style taskforce to protect Gibraltar. “It isn’t going to happen,” he said.
But he refused to condemn Lord Howard for suggesting on Sunday that the UK should threaten to use force to protect Gibraltar, just as Lady Thatcher did when the Falklands were invaded by Argentina.
Asked about Howard’s comments, and whether the tone of them was helpful, the prime minister’s spokesman at first simply stressed the government’s support for Gibraltar. He then argued that Howard was just trying to show the UK’s “resolve”.
Meanwhile, after speaking to the chief minister of Gibraltar, Fabien Picardo, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, called on the government to maintain a tough line and ensure that any new deal on trade covers the territory.
Spain urged the British government to keep a cool head in the negotiations over the future of Gibraltar. Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, said: “Someone in the UK is losing their cool and there’s no need for it.”
But one ally of Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, told the Guardian that the key message to Gibraltar was that “if they want to be part of the single market, there is only one way”.
“Brexit is going to be very, very bad for Gibraltar’s economy,” said Esteban González Pons, who leads the Spanish delegation in the European parliament. “All the businesses that are now in Gibraltar are going to jump to Andalusia and probably to Malta.”
Gibraltar was not mentioned in May’s letter to the EU commission’s president, Donald Tusk, triggering article 50 last week, but the European council’s draft guidelines published in response to the exit letter on Friday said the overseas territory could only be included in a trade deal between London and the EU with Spain’s agreement.
On Sunday, May spoke to Picardo, telling him the British government would “never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes”.
En route to the Middle East for a three-day visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the first trade and security offensive for the prime minister since the official Brexit process began, May reiterated the commitment to getting a “good deal” for Gibraltar.
“Our position on Gibraltar has not changed, we will be working to get the best possible trade deal for the UK and the best possible deal for Gibraltar and we are going to work with the government of Gibraltar, as we have been doing over the past couple of months, to ensure we get the best deal for both,” she said.
“Obviously there will be 27 states that will have to agree that deal with us but I’m confident when it comes to agreeing that deal it is not just about whether it is going to be good thing for the UK, the important thing for the remaining 27 is that a good trade deal with the UK is good for them as well as good for us. I think at the end of the day, it is that which will win through.”
May said she had not omitted mention of the territory, despite its absence from the article 50 letter. “I was very clear in my statement in the house of the continuing support we show to Gibraltar,” she said.
Downing Street sources had played down the seriousness of the line in the draft guidelines, which will be expanded over the coming month, but EU officials told the Guardian over the weekend that Brussels had been surprised May did not mention Gibraltar in her six-page letter beginning the formal two-year exit process.
Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Picardo denied his government had been shut out of the process and said he had been assured the UK would never allow Gibraltar to be excluded from a trade deal with the EU.
Separately, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, is to visit Delhi and Mumbai at the head of a major trade delegation to try to drum up post-Brexit commercial opportunities.
Joined by the junior international trade minister, Mark Garnier, Bank of England governor Mark Carney and a series of business executives, Hammond is to take part in a trade summit hosted by his Indian counterpart, Arun Jaitley, the Treasury said.
Hammond said: “As we prepare to leave the European Union, it is more important than ever that we strengthen our relationship with India, one of the world’s leading economies and one of our oldest friends and allies.”