The nasty party is back as both sides play a dangerous game with Brexit

PUBLISHED: 14:34 05 May 2017 | UPDATED: 14:34 05 May 2017

May, Junker

May, Junker

2017 Getty Images

Why May, Corbyn and Junker are the villains who will ensure we all lose.

As Princess Diana almost said, it looks as if there are going to be three people in Britain’s June 8 election debate. One is Theresa May, of course, Jeremy Corbyn too whenever he decides to drop into the conversation, plus a representative figure from the EU 27 whom we’ll call Jean-Claude Juncker. Why him? Because the Luxembourg fixer has again shown himself this week to be a much more satisfactory pantomime villain than Angela Merkel or chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Like Theresa and Jeremy, Jean-Claude can always get part of the audience hissing in the stalls, as Germany’s mild chancellor rarely manages.

How much interactive villainy are the Three Villains and their less fastidious associates currently engaged in? Quite a lot, I’d say, more than is either desirable or necessary, though some of it may be unavoidable. As in France, picking its president on Sunday, some of it is about the domestic politics of the campaign, some about the Brexit process and yet more about the inescapable connection between the two. How can anyone seriously talk about taxation and public spending without making disputed assumptions about future growth – or lack of it – as the implications of Brexit become clearer.

When the Tories made their traditional “double whammy” (copyright Chris Patten) attack on Labour’s “tax and spend bombshell” proposals – £45 billion adrift? £450 billion? – the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, accused them of telling “lies”. That’s very much his style and fits these harsh times in which the word “liar” is bandied about far too much in politics. If its over-use by President Trump – himself an extraordinary and compulsive liar – eventually pushes it out of fashion, it hasn’t happened yet. As an old school reporter, one who remembers when “economical with the actualité” was the delicate euphemism of choice, I understand why politicians sometimes feel the need to dissemble: quiet-life voters insist on being deceived about hard choices. But I shrink from spraying around the L-word. Let’s settle for suggesting that the political class is sometimes being “less than frank”, LTF for short. It’s not as if the media is as frank and fearless as it pretends.

This week has seen the Three Villains again being LTF about Brexit, the dominant issue of both the campaign and of British politics – but not the EU’s – for the rest of the decade. As even the doziest voter now knows, May’s Downing St dinner with Commission president Juncker and chief negotiator Barnier last Wednesday has turned into a serious clash about how the divorce will proceed and its likely outcome. A colourful account was briefed to Germany’s most eminent and uncolourful newspaper, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). In it May was portrayed as being naïvely deluded – “on a different galaxy” – over what can be achieved and how. As for David Davis, Barnier’s British counterpart was portrayed as being cockily irritating both to his boss and their visitors, wrong on the details too.

The FAZ’s leaked account sounded all too believable, apart from (irony alert) the bit about Davis being too cocky. After all, a succession of EU leaders – including Council president, Donald Tusk, and the Strasbourg Parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani – have flown to London to reinforce the 27’s declared position; namely that Britain must agree its Brexit bill before serious talks can begin on its future trade relationship, much as they said in March and confirmed in a four minute show of unity last weekend.

Having astonished her guests by suggesting that any mutual guarantee of rights to Brits and EU citizens living in each other’s countries is a matter of simple reciprocity (it isn’t), May did it again by telling them that Britain isn’t legally obliged to pay “a penny” of the proposed 50-60 billion euro Brexit bill. No wonder Juncker rang Merkel at 7am to beef up her “illusions” speech to the Bundestag later that morning. By Wednesday the FT’s man in Brussels had chilled a few more Whitehall spines by recalculating the bill upwards to 82-100 billion euros. Admittedly it was a gross figure (to be paid upfront too), netted out around half that over time. The small matter of Britain’s election purdah being used to block some budget revisions in Brussels was insult to Juncker’s injury over dinner.

But that doesn’t make the FAZ briefing politically right or helpful. It doesn’t make Juncker being “ten times more sceptical than before” about a successful deal true either, if words have any meaning. Having been a “50/50 chance of success” man before that would make him a five-percenter. For that matter No 10’s anodyne pre-FAZ briefing about the dinner being “constructive” and “excellent” (post-FAZ it was “Brussels gossip”) look a bit LTF too, though being blandly LTF is the hallmark of the May PR machine, at least in public. In private it’s pretty ruthless.

Talking of which, one of the most depressing details to emerge from the dinner is that Nick Timothy, with Fiona Hill May’s joint chief of staff (he’s the one with the beard), was absent from the occasion. Among those who know stuff there is a rough consensus that Timothy, who voted for Brexit as Hill did not, is the key man in May’s tight Praetorian Guard, more important at the end of the Brexit day than Davis who is May’s stab vest. But Whitehall gossip – what Washington gossips call The Great Mentioner – also says Timothy remains woefully under-briefed on granular Brexit details in comparison with his importance as May’s brain. Having a German fiancée does not count. Nigel Farage is still married to one (just about). From here on Brexit is mostly granular.

Not present at the dinner then – unlike Martin Selmayr. Unlike who? Yes, the German lawyer, son of a distinguished academic lawyer, who is Juncker’s chef du cabinet, was present. In effect Timothy’s opposite number in Brussels. Selmayr (46), is also a bureaucratic outsider, one – like Timothy (37) – who is happy to break rules, ruffle important feathers, be LTF with the hacks to serve his own purposes. “Rasputin” Selmayr (aka “the monster”) is also the fast-tracked official and turf warrior who took Juncker’s candidacy for the Commission presidency from no-hoper to victor, despite Merkel’s reservations about the choleric ex-Luxembourg PM.

No one can be sure who briefed FAZ, but my guess was young Martin with J-C’s approval. By mid-week The Great Mentioner was suggesting that Merkel may have OK’d it too. She has election worries of her own. Apparently the two Rasputins (what else can Nick Timothy’s newly-acquired long beard signify?) have yet to meet and lock antlers. Timothy has had a standing invitation to visit Brussels and get to know more people there, but ambitious Britons’ retreat from EU institutions long predates the referendum. By skipping the dinner he missed another chance, allowing Selmayr to drop his diplomatic MOAB outside May’s front door unchallenged by counter spin. Anything to wake up the sleepwalking Brits and stave off disaster, eh J-C ? Juncker was presented as sweeping aside London’s breezy win-win mood music to insist: ”Brexit cannot be a success,” lest it encourage other defections from the EU project.

In their concern to hang together the 27 have a point. It still escapes insular Brits whose grandparents (except in the Channel Islands) were spared the horrors of 20th century dictatorship and/or military occupation. For most of them, especially for the French and Germans, warring for centuries, Europe was always about much more than trade. They take offence in Boris Johnson’s (where is he?) glib Nazi jokes, just as they did Silvio Berlusconi likening Martin Shultz – he just might be German chancellor soon, Silvio – to a concentration camp guard. And so they should.

But aggressive briefing of this kind fans the very flames of nationalist resentment which is their life’s mission to smother, resentments not confined in 2017 to Britain’s “Crush the Saboteurs” tendency. Indeed, a resolve to stand united against impudent cake-and-eat-it demands from Brexit Brits is one of the few issues which binds the 27 together, much as opposition to apartheid in South Africa used to be a unifying force within the Commonwealth. Desperate Greece is slowly imploding thanks to German insistence on eye-watering austerity for all those Wonga loans it took. It is a scandal of the eurozone’s own devising, a ticking time bomb. Weren’t Achilles and his heel both Greeks? According to Syriza’s fallen finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis’s memoirs (extracted in the Sunday Telegraph) Francois Hollande blocked a young protégé from brokering a compromise at Berlin’s insistence. The protégé’s name was Macron.

Only British Brexit head bangers mimic Juncker, insisting: “Europe cannot be a success”. On that at least May is right in wanting the EU 27 to succeed. Cheerful David Davis was right too when he told Radio 4’s conscientious Today programme audience that the two sides of the looming negotiations are softening each other up, though he does sound scarily cocky. In their LTF ways, London is saying: “what’s the problem?” Brussels, Paris and Berlin replying: “don’t you realise yet that you’re the problem.” Brexit tabloids helpfully weigh in to accuse the 27 of ganging up to “bully” Britain.

What did they expect? Who started this fight? May promises yet again (copyright Ken Clarke) to be “a bloody difficult woman” while complaining when others play rough for the gallery too. Brussels retaliates by telling her she’ll have to negotiate with Barnier if she has the time, not with fellow heads of government. Both sides are bluffing, but May knows she will need to compromise in the end, knows she must pay some of that 60 (100?) bn euros. It is that knowledge which underpins her LTF election strategy which is to buy extra time after 2020 to bed down the deal and see off the “saboteur” right in her own party. Their current and vocal support is tactical LTF too.

So why wind up Brexit paranoia and opportunism, as she does and J-C’s bagman does? Both sides play a dangerous game which heightens the risk miscalculations that could lead to a fast, damaging collapse when talks start in earnest. They could all do worse than re-read the negotiations that led to the disastrous Treaty of Versailles – heavy reparations as the price of admitted “war guilt” – imposed on defeated Germany, all against a background of “Hang the Kaiser” and “Prussia Must Pay” intransigence from the usual suspects. Lloyd George came back from France to attack the “diseased vanity” of Lord Northcliffe, Svengali of the Daily Mail and Times. As in 1919, “Hang the Juncker” versus “May Must Pay” intransigence now would ensure we all lose, sooner or later, probably sooner – though the economic data is only slowly accumulating.

In 1945, the West’s victors were much smarter, more amenable. But amnesia is the fatal privilege of future generations. If a generation is reckoned as 25 years, it has taken almost three generations and the rise of new world powers – rapidly overshadowing Europe in the pecking order – for the international architecture of 1945 to come under serious threat. Labour’s amnesiacs have moved at a far brisker pace to forget both the lessons of the party’s worst post-war election result, under Michael Foot’s leadership in 1983, and what Neil Kinnock, briefly John Smith, then Blair/Brown, did to restore its credibility on the road back to power.

“Labour will win when it wants to,” Michael Heseltine told the doomsters in the 1980s, so Tony Blair reminded the Observer’s readers at the weekend. True then, true now, but does Corbyn really want to win on June 8? Or is the fantasy prize his entourage seeks that of reshaping the historic Labour brand in the sectarian left’s own image? The question keeps being asked as the party fails to mount an effective challenge to May’s demand for a free hand to negotiate Brexit or to walk away from a deal she deems unacceptable. LTF on his own lifelong scepticism towards Europe, the Labour leader prevents his Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, getting traction on the blank negotiating cheque May is asking voters to sign in the name of strongandstable government.

In reality May’s government is anything but strongandstable. In terms of weight and experience John Major’s weary cabinet, the one that went down to defeat in 1997, was far stronger than today’s. Hezza, Clarke, Howard, Rifkind, Lilley, Lord Mackay, wise Tony Newton and energetic Virginia Bottomley (never off the Today programme), not to forget crafty old Major himself, they were ripe for dismissal, but not nonentities.

Try to name six members of the current cabinet, let alone six significant ones, and you quickly come unstuck. May’s personal ascendancy is a fluke of David Cameron’s misjudgment and her own shrewd tactical sense. It is now being reinforced by her election guru Lynton “Dog Whistle” Crosby’s determination to keep the campaign spotlight on the prime minister and her strongandstable soundbites alone. Philip Hammond, no barnstormer campaigner in his fiercest moments, is marginalised on suspicion of a tendency to candour. Not enough LTF in Spreadsheet Phil’s makeup. By way of a contrast Boris Johnson is much too much of a barnstormer to be risked overshadowing May in the “Me Election”, too mouthy in the Unduly Frank department, to be allowed out alone. When not on important missions to Chad, funster Boris will be locked in the Oliver Letwin Memorial Coal Cellar for much of the campaign, no visitors allowed.

It is a measure of the reduced conditions of our politics that May gets away with the occasional cautiously crafted sofa interview on television, no election press conferences to speak of, little or no contact with ordinary voters that have not been pre-prepared. She is a good constituency MP in Maidenhead and reportedly gets cross with aides who do not allow her enough time to knock on doors in Mevagissey or Morpeth. But the shy vicar’s daughter lacks Major’s easy common touch and Mevagissey (I was there last week) is not Maidenhead, though its fishing fleet – 70 boats – is doing well, at least for now. Most of the catch goes to France or Spain via Plymouth.

Apart from wanting to help ordinary working families (are grammar schools really a good idea?), to cap energy prices (ditto?) and have a more interventionist industrial policy (what is it?), the suspicion grows that May’s attractively modest public face provides cover for hidden shallows. The pitch for Labour heartland votes is understandable but blatant. Is there much substance?

A serious opposition should be able to make hay, if not mincemeat, out of all this. The technocrats at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) patiently explain why there must be more cuts or higher taxes if the fiscal deficit is finally to be closed by 2022, seven years after the new editor of the Evening Standard promised. Ex-IFS technocrat, Andrew Dilnot, quietly urges cross-party agreement to address the funding hole in elderly social care budgets and dismisses government-inspired speculation about a voucher system. More LTF.

This is the context in which Diane Abbott’s car crash, the woefully bad LBC interview about Labour’s campaign pledge to up police numbers by 10,000 should be viewed. It was lamentable and lazy, no amount of Corbynite blame heaped on “Blairites” or the “mainstream media” can make it less so. Neophyte canvassers tell sceptical voters on their own doorsteps that they’ve “been misled”. But they haven’t.

Most voters made up their mind about Abbott a long time ago, as they did about Corbyn, McDonnell and their LTF project. They floated some good ideas in Labour’s “Economy Week” and “for the many, not the few” is always a good slogan, it was Blair’s. But Abbott isn’t going to be home secretary and McDonnell isn’t going to get the chance to cancel cuts in capital gains tax (CGT) to finance worthy social causes or daft schemes before the numbers part company with reality.

No, she may not get the huge majority she seeks, but May will get these chances and Phil Hammond will seek to keep them in touch with economic realities as the Brexit negotiations and the Brexit economy take clearer shape. Over to you Martin Selmayr and Nick Timothy.

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