It is unlikely that British voters were the main target of the Downing Street Brexit dinner leak to a German paper. As Mark Wallace has argued, it is probable that Jean-Claude Juncker’s partisan version of the event was intended to win support among the EU27 for a punative deal. But the latter’s main point – that Theresa May simply doesn’t understand what the negotiation entails, and is “living in another galaxy” – has been repeated elsewhere.
Guy Verhofstadt has mocked her “strong but stable leadership” formula, and said that it is “time to get real”. That is about par for the course with him. But yesterday Michel Barnier pitched in, suggesting that the Prime Minister’s view is an “illusion”. (And the EU’s chief negotiator is viewed by Ministers as a relatively benign figure.) Above all, Angela Merkel, who seems to have been tipped off by Juncker himself, echoed the “illusion” phrase to German legislators. In the wings lurks Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s Chief of Staff – personally committed to punishing Britain for Brexit, and seething with rage about Fleet Street’s uninhibited reporting of his grandfather’s military record. (Josef Selmayr, a German army officer during the World War Two, was imprisoned afterwards for war crimes).
These grave and reverend signiors on the continental mainland are clearly alarmed by the gap between the EU’s negotiating position and their own. And they seem to believe that by cranking the pressure up – and by patronising May in the course of doing so – the Government can be persuaded to back down. The EU27’s official position has hardened. The Financial Times has been guided to the conclusion that they are now asking for £100 billion euros as part of the Brexit divorce settlement. And all those concerned will know that the heat and noise of their leaks and words will spill over into Britain’s general election – not least Merkel, who faces a poll herself.
It may be lost on the other side of the channel that the Conservative vote is more likely than otherwise to rise as a result. But be that as it may, the core of Juncker’s view is contained in words leaked to that German paper: “Brexit cannot be a success”. The Prime Minister cannot sign up to a settlement which embodies that view. Nor can she expected to agree that her own proposals – which include a swift settlement to the status of EU nationals, an outcome that Remainers here have been clamouring for – are simply not worth discussing, and that she herself is a few cents short of the full Euro. So by acting as she has, May has seized the moment. And by speaking out openly when her opponents briefed in secret, she has made them look small and herself rather bigger.
But the Commission President and the German Chancellor are only one of her audiences. The other, of course, is voters. The Prime Minister understands the psychology of the mass of the electorate very well. A British leader standing up to continental leaders summons up a gallery of patriotic images – ranging from Elizabeth I at Tilbury through Britain’s defiance of Napoleon to Churchill standing alone against Hitler. That there are other views of British history, or that matters may not be so simple in this case, is beside the electoral point. Sure, May could lose some votes as a result in Bath or Twickenham or Cheltenham. But she is likely to gain more in Newcastle-under-Lyme and Chorley and Wolverhampton South-West and Bishop Auckland by way of compensation.
That exchange is part of the calculation that she has already made by calling this election in the first place. And there is a further dimension to her pursuit of working-class, midlands, and northern Labour, UKIP and Leave voters. Her use of Downing Street’s bully pulpit yesterday has put Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron on the spot (and marginalised Paul whatever-his-name-is over at UKIP). They have little choice but to criticise her for doing so, particularly in the case of the Liberal Democrat leader. But it is very difficult for opposition politicians to back those abroad – particularly a German Chancellor – against a British Prime Minister.
As Leader of the Opposition, Tony Blair grasped this during the “beef war” waged by John Major against the EU, not dissenting from the Government in principle as it blocked European measure after measure that required unanimity. In short, Blair kept his head down. The Prime Minister knows that Corbyn – and Farron in particular – will be less canny. Furthermore, she also appreciates that Britain has changed since the mid-1990s. A gap between liberal opinion in London and the mood of the provinces exists now that did not then. The Gina Millers and A.C.Graylings and Jolyon Maughams of this world will duly walk into May’s trap, queuing up to protest that May is wrong and Merkel is right. To which all that ConservativeHome can usefully add is: good luck with that one.
There are risks to the Prime Minister’s coup de théâtre – or, rather, puzzles about where she goes next. It may bump the blue vote up for the local elections. However, if Juncker and company now put a sock in it, the effect of her gambit risks fading away by June 8. And if they don’t, how does she follow up having fired her biggest rhetorical howitzer at the start of the exchanges? How on earth do you follow up an open statement by Britain’s most senior Minister in front of the very door of Downing Street? Perhaps she is talking tough now and will back off later. But these are problems for tomorrow – which, as it says in the old film, is another day.
As when she decided to announce that date by which Article 50 would be moved – or indeed called this election – May seems to have acted with most Ministers out of the loop. Lynton Crosby may or may not have been in it yesterday. But this site can’t help thinking that the Prime Minister’s manoeuvre smacks of his old saw about throwing a dead cat on the table – in other words, if you’re in a spot of bother, try a distraction exercise. Electorally, May appears to be in no trouble at all, so the adage doesn’t apply. But perhaps a version of it does. The Prime Minister has transformed attacks on her abroad to advantage at home. She has confounded her critics abroad. She has changed the conversation at home. She has thrown not so much a dead cat as a live lion on the table – and a British one at that.