May’s diplomatic blunders will cost Britain dear in Brexit talks | Rafael Behr

Rafael Behr
‘Some reluctance to cultivate goodwill might be deliberate.’ Theresa May with German chancellor Angela Merkel. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

There aren’t many rules to drug dealing, but one of them is not to get high on your own supply. The product is for punters, and getting wasted is bad for business. The equivalent rule in politics is not to be taken in by your own spin. Prime ministers employ people to push positive stories about them on Westminster street corners. But they shouldn’t consume that line themselves.

Theresa May is sitting on a consignment of Brexit. The street value is unknown. The quality is hard to ascertain because it has been cut with bad promises, myths and unrealistic expectations. The spun version depicts a nation on the threshold of ecstatic liberation. Foreigners will no longer make the laws, nor swarm the shores.

When urging MPs not to tamper with the bill permitting activation of article 50, May said it was “time to get on with … building an independent, self-governing, global Britain”. Anyone who queries the prime minister’s approach wants a subjugated, dependent, non-global Britain. May’s Brexit is the only Brexit, and it’s the good stuff – clean, pure, no nasty side-effects.

Since the article 50 bill is now law, May’s product can be tested in the laboratory of a European negotiation. The phase of platitudes about sovereignty and the will of the people is over. Heads of government and commission officials on the other side of the channel expect Britain to bring something more substantial to the table: something serious.

Or that is what they once expected. Since May took office, there has been an erosion of confidence that her government knows what it is doing. The appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary was a bad start. His cod-Churchillian bombast is indulged as political cabaret by a domestic audience, but overseas it looks crass and unprofessional.

The resignation of Ivan Rogers as head of the UK’s permanent mission to the EU (Ukrep) in January took another chunk out of British credibility. Ukrep is admired in Brussels as one of the best negotiating outfits in town, and Rogers was highly respected. If his sound advice was being ignored (and there is no better explanation for his exit), the conclusion to draw is that Downing Street listens to unsound advice or none.

May could have allayed anxiety with personal diplomacy, but that has never been her style. She is reserved with cabinet ministers she has known for years. With European leaders she has been formal to the point of rudeness, sticking to prepared speaking notes and gnomic banalities. Even in bilateral chats, where friendly counterparts have offered support in exchange for insight into May’s thinking, the prime minister has used her “Brexit means Brexit” line, unaware of how insulting it is to fob off the head of an EU power with a vacuous media soundbite.

May's chilliness looks like a snub alongside hand-holding intimacy with a US president who openly despises the EU

Some reluctance to cultivate goodwill might be deliberate. May wants to keep the EU guessing before presenting the outline of a negotiating position. She may be playing a strategic game, shoring up her credentials as an uncompromising Brexiter at home, leaving no doubt that she means business. She may then feel more confident striking a deal abroad without vulnerability at home to the accusation of disobeying her referendum orders.

That is what pro-European Tory MPs hope. They pray that a different May will emerge behind closed doors – one who grasps that there is give as well as take in a negotiation. This other May will not be so obstinate that she ends up walking away with no deal at all.

But there is no evidence to support this hypothesis, and plenty to suggest the opposite: May is in a weak diplomatic position because she is rubbish at diplomacy. Her chilliness with Europeans looks like a gratuitous snub alongside hand-holding intimacy with a US president who openly despises the EU.

May has bungled relations with Nicola Sturgeon. The Scottish first minister has always had an eye on opportunities to demand a second independence referendum, but May’s charmless neglect has given the nationalists every provocation they wanted.

The prime minister is even struggling to maintain friendly relations with her neighbour at 11 Downing Street. When budget proposals for a national insurance rise came under attack as a breach of manifesto promises and an offence against the enterprising spirit of low-tax Conservatism, May’s allies diverted blame towards the chancellor.

No 10 views the Treasury as a nest of Europhile elitists with political antennae poorly tuned to the Brexit Britain wavelength. Whitehall’s economic mandarins look down on May and her inner circle as narrow-minded, anti-immigration zealots over-promoted from the Home Office.

Within 24 hours of Philip Hammond’s budget speech, the prime minister had announced a review of offending tax policy. Capitulation was made inevitable by aggressive headlines in the Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph and the Express. May has risen to the top without crossing lines drawn by those papers, and she clearly doesn’t intend to start tampering with her winning formula now.

For that reason alone, it seems unlikely she is about to reveal some hidden streak of diplomatic sophistication resulting in a smooth and friendly transition out of the EU. May has shown willingness to alienate everyone who counsels moderation and compromise while indulging those who depict the EU as an implacable enemy.

There is no prospect of a good deal without recognition that other governments have interests to be addressed. And there is no way to address those interests without upsetting the hardliners who believe Britain owes the rest of Europe nothing and could leap into a free-trading utopia in a single bound, no deal required.

May has never challenged that view. She has nurtured it. She has eschewed the friendship of habitually loyal Tory moderates and basked in the cheers of career rebels. She has courted the faction that has been ratcheting her party ever deeper into Europhobic paranoia for a generation. She has made their rhetoric her own.

Perhaps it is an act. Maybe a more nuanced approach to the negotiations is imminent. But the safer assumption is that May isn’t just dealing in narcotic Brexit fantasy spin. She’s hooked on the stuff.

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