How Theresa May's anger finally spilled over after a week of EU attacks

Gordon Rayner
Theresa May with Jean-Claude Juncker on April 26 - REUTERS

The EU’s great betrayal started outside Downing Street with a Judas kiss from Jean-Claude Juncker, and it was in the same spot, at almost the same hour one week on, that Theresa May’s anger finally boiled over today with the most extraordinary speech of her premiership.

European Commission President Mr Juncker was welcomed with open arms in the street outside Number 10 by Mrs May on April 26, and he had appeared in good spirits when he left later that evening.

Their talks about Brexit, he said, had been “constructive” while his fellow dinner guest Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, described the meeting as “cordial”.

There had even been time for a few jokes and a friendly chat with Mrs May about her passion for hill-walking, a shared interest with Mr Barnier.

Seven days later, however, Mr Barnier was turning Mrs May’s rambling hobby against her with a hectoring and vaguely sinister allegory about the Brexit talks.

Mountain walkers, he said, had to “learn a certain number of rules”, such as taking one step at a time “because sometimes you are on a steep and rocky path”.

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Using language akin to a TV mafia villain, he warned that hikers had to beware of “accidents” that might befall them, like falling rocks.

He also insisted that the Brexit “divorce bill” was non-negotiable and that Britain could face “legal” consequences if it did not pay up in full.

It was just the latest in a series of what Mrs May described as “threats” from EU politicians and officials that had begun the day after that fateful Downing Street dinner.

Mrs May had been joined at that meal by David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, and the Brussels delegation included Martin Selmayr, Mr Juncker’s powerful chief of staff who is nicknamed “The Monster” because of his uncompromising manner.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator Credit: Reuters

The EU delegation was all smiles as they left Number 10, and Mrs May was seen throwing her head back with laughter as Mr Selmayr made a parting joke.

Once they got into their limousines, however, the mask dropped. Mr Juncker was quickly on the phone to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accusing Mrs May of “megaphone diplomacy” and of being “deluded” and living in “another galaxy”.

The day after the dinner, Mrs Merkel used a speech to the German parliament to suggest that “some in Great Britain” (translation: Mrs May and Mr Davis) were living under the “illusion” that they could keep the same rights as member states after Brexit.

Mrs May bit her tongue and let the comment pass, but Germany would once again be used as a means of attacking Mrs May before the weekend was out.

On Sunday the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper ran a lengthy and detailed account of the Downing Street dinner, suggesting that Mr Juncker left Downing Street “ten times more sceptical” about the possibility of a Brexit deal than he had been before, and that Mrs May had told him Britain was not obliged to pay “a penny” of the divorce bill.

Mr Selmayr, who is German, immediately became the prime suspect for the leak. The article painted his boss Mr Juncker as the strong man of the talks, and belittled Mrs May as a naive negotiator with no understanding of how the EU works.

Downing Street insisted it did not “recognise” the account, and Mrs May dismissed it as “gossip” but inside Number 10, the mood was starting to simmer over what was seen as a brazen stitch-up.

Theresa May speaking outside Downing Street Credit: Getty

There was more to come. Michael Roth, Germany’s finance minister, took to Twitter on Monday to say that “the British government must abandon [the] myth that all British will be better off post-Brexit”.

Guy Verhofstadt, the lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, followed that the next day by openly mocking Mrs May’s negotiating skills by using her “strong and stable” campaign slogan.

He said: “Any Brexit deal requires a strong and stable understanding of the complex issues involved. The clock is ticking - it’s time to get real.”

Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph revealed a plot by EU officials to block an early deal on migrants’ rights and shift the blame onto Mrs May.

The only hint of her irritation with Mr Juncker came in a BBC interview that day when she briefly deviated from her script to say that Mr Juncker would be the next person to find her “a bloody difficult woman”, as she was once described by Kenneth Clarke.

By now Mrs May had formed the opinion that Germany and the EU were trying to influence the election by undermining her, no doubt hoping to reduce her vote and thus weaken her hand. Allies of Mrs May briefed the Telegraph that foreign powers were breaking the “long-standing tradition” that countries do not involve themselves in other countries’ elections.

Still the dam holding back the Prime Minister’s anger held. But it finally burst yesterday after Mr Barnier set out the EU’s negotiating position, which appeared to be more a series of orders to Mrs May to step into line.

In a clear swipe at Mrs May, Mr Barnier echoed the words of Mrs Merkel by saying some people “have created the illusion that Brexit will have no material impact on our lives, that negotiations can be concluded painlessly. That is not the truth”.

He said Britain would not be “punished” for leaving the EU but the UK would have to "close the account" in a "single financial settlement" which "will cover all the financial relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union - all the commitments entered into as a member of the union".

The size of the settlement should be “incontestable”, he said, and if Britain did not pay the bill there could be “political and legal problems”.

Mr Barnier said the consequences of Britain leaving without paying would be “explosive”. A landslide victory for Mrs May in the general election “will not change anything as regards the position and determination of the European Union” and it was “high time” for negotiations to start because “the clock is ticking”.

Then came his final flourish as he smugly patronised the hill-walking Prime Minister by advising her to “learn to put one foot in front of the other”.

For Mrs May, enough was enough. As she left for Buckingham Palace for a meeting with the Queen, reporters were briefed that she would make an unscheduled speech outside Downing Street.

It would be “punchy”, aides promised. That turned out to be the understatement of the election campaign.

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