The opinion polls may show the Conservatives nearly 20 points ahead of Labour, but the signs from Theresa May’s camp this week are that they are getting surprisingly twitchy. Improbable though this may seem – and it almost certainly is a bluff – it is a reminder that May has put her own job on the line for the next five weeks, and that she will be destroyed politically if her snap poll does not work.
All the signs are that May was caught on the hop by the counter-attack from Europe against her vision of Brexit, which she denounced in Downing Street this afternoon. The fractious dinner with the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, was followed by a rare public reprimand from Angela Merkel and now the uncompromising speech by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who warned this morning that the process will neither be quick nor painless – even though May tries to claim it will be both.
May may have previously understood intellectually that the EU position – formal negotiations, clear sequencing, the terms of departure preceding discussion of any future relationship – was well established. The EU’s stance on this has been extremely consistent right from the moment of the Brexit vote last June. But she may not have anticipated the deliberate attempt to unsettle her over the issue during the election.
In one sense the EU attacks are just what May might have wanted … they allow her to pose as Britannia
In one sense the EU attacks are just what May might have wanted. Her statement outside Downing Street allows her to pose as Britannia. It showed she is ready to play hardball back, hoping to cement her claims as the strong leader Britain needs. No country likes the thought that others want a say in their elections, whether the intervention is coming from Moscow or Brussels. May can expect trenchant support from the Conservative press for her comments. If the Tories are worrying that Ukip voters are not coming home to them, this will surely help to do the trick.
Those who worry that May has got her Brexit tactics very wrong indeed should, however, be worried. May’s job is to get a good deal for Britain’s businesses, workplaces, communities and consumers. But right now she is using the Donald Trump playbook of talking loudly and carrying a small stick. Whether their outrage is confected or not, EU leaders are genuinely alarmed that May is launching a full-frontal charge of their guns, rather than trying to sort the relationship with Europe in the more consensual way that, in the end, most British CEOs, workers – and voters – expect.
This is still a phony war – the election, not the Brexit deal, is the prize on May’s mind – but we are getting an alarming rehearsal of how badly the real argument may end for Britain unless May decides to deal rather than denounce.