The Salzburg debacle makes the choices starker for Mrs May – and for Mr Corbyn

Andrew Rawnsley
‘Up a cul-de-sac without a reverse gear’: Theresa May speaking about Brexit negotiations after the EU summit in Salzburg. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty

When Theresa May woke up on Friday morning to headlines speaking of her humiliation in Salzburg, it was not an entirely novel experience for a prime minister who has become synonymous with calamity. She has had many Catastrophic Fridays. And Miserable Mondays, Terrible Tuesdays, Wicked Wednesdays, Torrid Thursdays, Savage Saturdays and Searing Sundays.

One of the notable features of her premiership has been the extraordinary capacity of the human sponge at Number 10 to soak up pitiless batterings that would have crushed other politicians. One of Mrs May’s female colleagues in the cabinet recently offered me the opinion that any man in her tortured position would have long since thrown in the blood-soaked towel.

Even so, the Salzburg debacle was exceptionally ignominious for Mrs May, both politically and personally. She did not fly to Austria with the expectation that the EU leaders were going to fully embrace her Chequers proposal for the future relationship. She was not that delusional. The prime minister did think the EU would talk in language that was sufficiently friendly for her to be able to argue that Chequers was still viable and that might help her endure a difficult Tory party conference. The Chequers plan, already pretty friendless in parliament and unpopular with British voters, needed some warm words from the EU if it was to have a hope of staying airborne. Instead, she was shot down in flames.

This was in large part a failure, the latest in a sorry saga of them, of British negotiating tactics. In advance of the summit, Mrs May had sent cabinet ministers around European capitals in an effort to find allies. What London conceived of as a “charm offensive” was seen on the continent as an insulting attempt to drive wedges into the EU by trying to set member states against each other and against the commission’s negotiators. The belief that Britain can divide and conquer in the EU has been a persistent miscalculation on the part of its government. The effect has been to draw the EU closer together.

Things turned even more sour once the summit got under way in Salzburg. The hills were alive with the sound of other leaders becoming more and more irritated with the prime minister. Some were aggravated by Britain’s failure to produce fresh proposals to resolve the Irish border conundrum. Mrs May, whose emotional intelligence has never been terribly refined, did not help herself at the summit dinner by addressing them as if they were junior members of her cabinet rather than equals whose help she can’t do without. She presented her Chequers plan in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion that many in her audience found too aggressive. There was some incredulity around the table when she even started to read out bits of a newspaper article. Very well, they retorted, we will leave it. Donald Tusk, the European council president, said it clearly: the Chequers plan for selective participation in the single market “will not work” because it would undermine the integrity of the EU. This was not a new position. EU officials have been telling the British at all levels of engagement that Mrs May’s notion of a “common rulebook” for trade in goods is not viable and for a multiplicity of reasons. The EU has been saying this, just a bit more diplomatically than at Salzburg, for weeks. The only difference made by Mr Tusk was to spell it out in blunt language.

This exposed another persistent fantasy of the British government: that the EU does not really mean it when it says its “four freedoms” are non-negotiable. The EU has always been consistent in saying that it can’t compromise on this and for good reason. The single market (a British invention, incidentally) will start to unravel if members are allowed to cherrypick bits they like and leave aside those that don’t suit them so well. Even more would this be the case if a non-member, which is what Britain will be, was allowed to opt in and out as it pleased. Hence Mr Tusk’s Twitter joke about Mrs May being offered a cake with “no cherries”. The EU’s own internal fractures, not least on immigration, make it even less willing to countenance special privileges for Britain. Anxiety about its own cohesion, particularly felt by Emmanuel Macron, further militates against conceding anything that might look like a reward for leaving.

All of this has been clear since Britain embarked down this peril-strewn path. None of this should have been as large a shock as it was to Mrs May.

The hard Brexiters cannot contain their joy. Stalemate is their friend. Deadlock is their drug

For the moment at least, she is declaring that her plan is to stay exactly where she is: up a cul-de-sac without a reverse gear. She has made a career of dressing up inflexibility as a virtue and did the same when she made her emergency statement from Number 10 on Friday afternoon. She flatly rejected the two main alternatives to Chequers: staying within the single market (the Norway option) or trying for a much more limited relationship based on a free-trade agreement (Canada-style). Her tone of icy fury was mainly intended for domestic consumption. Sounding steely will probably help her through her conference. A defiant pose may temporarily impress the sort of voter it is designed to please. Others will surely conclude that someone who has to demand “respect” already lacks it. It will have much more lasting and much more dangerous consequences if the EU concludes that further negotiation is futile. For those who are rightly fearful of the prospect of Britain crashing out with no agreement at all, it was alarming to hear her default back to the old rhetorical trope that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

Observe who is happy. The hard Brexiters cannot contain their joy. They pretend solidarity with Mrs May while privately crowing that a Chequers plan that they have always hated is now dead. After a bad few weeks, during which they promised and then failed to produce their own plan, the Brextremists again have a spring in their step. Stalemate is their friend. Deadlock is their drug. They dream of leaving without a deal and calculate that this has just become nightmarishly more likely.

Mrs May’s diplomatic debacle is also, and paradoxically, a source of some encouragement for those who want a soft Brexit or to stop Brexit. By ratcheting up the threat of a calamitously chaotic exit, Salzburg may have more Britons fearful of where this is taking us. Campaigners for another referendum have seized the opportunity to dial up the volume.

The chances of getting one may be enhanced by what unfolds at the Labour party conference in Liverpool. Last year’s gathering was not allowed to debate Brexit for fear that it would embarrass Great Uncle Jeremy by exposing the gulf between his career-long hostility to the EU and the pro-European views of most members. This time will be different. The deluge of motions from constituency parties was simply too huge for Mr Corbyn to resist. The big trade unions, which control a lot of conference votes, have also been gradually moving towards support for another referendum. Many of the motions submitted for the conference demand that Labour commits to a people’s vote, though precisely what it will be permitted to debate is subject to the traditional procedural shenanigans when the compositing committee meets.

We don’t really need the conference to tell us what Labour members think, because we know already. Today’s Observer poll reports that a massive majority of members – 86% – want another public vote on EU withdrawal. Labour’s leadership has been, and continues to be, reluctant to embrace this. It hides behind slippery formulations that it is not ruling out a referendum, but not ruling it in either. Its position is a blank to be, maybe, filled in later. The conference can shove it in the direction of making the commitment. We also publish an interview with Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader. He pointedly says that if creating a “members’ party” – which is what Mr Corbyn is supposed to be all about – means anything, then it surely means listening to those members when it comes to another referendum on Brexit.

Experience has taught us to be highly wary of predicting the ultimate outcome of a Brexit plot that is as complex as it is hazardous. In the wake of the past 72 hours, I think it is safe to say this. The choices confronting Britain are clearer and starker. Hopes of a compromise have become bleaker. The chances of a no-deal Brexit or no Brexit have both gone up.

• Andrew Rawnsley is an Observer columnist