The fall-out from last week’s Downing Street dinner to discuss the Brexit negotiations continues to be felt, with Theresa May’s opponents using German newspaper reports of what was allegedly said to question whether she is up to the task. Media organisations and others who predicted disaster if Britain voted to leave have been falling over themselves to portray this as the beginning of the mess they foresaw. Since all their forecasts of calamity have so far failed to materialise, here at last is apparent proof of their perspicacity.
Their readiness to take at face value what is a self-serving and one-sided account of the working dinner suggests a desire to see the Brexit process fail in order to prove a point. Furthermore, there are signs of a deliberate attempt to influence the British general election, which should give any impartial observer pause for thought.
Although the principal EU protagonist at Number 10 was Jean Claude-Juncker, the Commission president, the view in government is that the Germans are calling the shots for internal political reasons. Mrs May has dismissed the reports as “Brussels gossip” but there is clearly an element of truth in them.
However, this is just the beginning of what everyone concedes will be a difficult set of negotiations. If this is a crisis, just wait for what happens next. The first confrontation will be over the “fee” for leaving, with the EU anxious to set the tenor for the rest of the negotiations by making the UK pay upfront. Mrs May needs to hold her nerve here and refuse - be a “bloody difficult woman” as she said yesterday.
The official UK position is that an agreement is wanted; but the shenanigans of the past few days shows that it would be wise to prepare for failure. The big mistake David Cameron made when he tried to renegotiate Britain’s position was that everyone knew he was not ready to walk away from the negotiating table because he assumed he would win. This meant the EU, and Angela Merkel especially, saw no need to help him out.
The same misunderstandings are developing again. There is still a view in Europe that Brexit will not really happen or that the UK will have to take what’s given. Mrs May has said no deal is better than a bad deal so she needs to prepare now for crashing out of the EU without one. Leaving our EU counterparts in no doubt that we are serious is the best way to get a good deal.