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30 March 2017

The Brexit outlook for Theresa May isn’t good

Getting from today's headlines to a successful deal will require an impressive feat of statecraft.

By Stephen Bush

Give me what I want or I shoot myself: that’s the gambit that worked for the sheriff in Blazing Saddles, but it may not fly in the Brexit negotiations.

Theresa May has invoked Article 50 and Britain is heading out of the European Union. She attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone yesterday than she has hitherto, but the message that has drawn the headlines is the government’s “threat” on security: that no Brexit deal means no British co-operation in Europol and in EU-wide counter-terror measures.

Gianni Pittella, the leader of the Socialist bloc in the European Parliament says it was “not a smart move” and “feels like blackmail”, and Guy Verhofstadt, parliament’s representative in the negotiations, is also using the B word, after a fashion: “I tried to be a gentleman towards a lady, so I didn’t even use or think about the use of the word blackmail.”

“Trading Blows” is the Mirror‘s splash, while “May threat to EU terror pact” is the Times‘ does-what-it-says-on-the-tin frontpage. “EU warns: don’t blackmail us” is the Guardian‘s. The Sun has turned the jingometer all the way up to 11 this morning: “Your money or your lives” is their splash.

David Davis hit the airwaves this morning to reassure people that the government’s intention was not to invoke security as a threat in the Brexit talks. My understanding is that the intention was to show co-operation and highlight the importance of Britain’s continuing relationship with the EU. In Brussels, not everyone read the letter as a threat. The European Parliament is more “highly strung” as one Brussels official puts it, but don’t forget: they get a vote on the deal too.

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That the mood music from Downing Street and much of the British press has been so relentlessly anti-Europe means that feelings are running high. While most of the British political class doesn’t have German or French, most of the political class does have English. The frontpages of the Sun, the Express and the Mail travel a lot further than their equivalents elsewhere in Europe, which will increase the pressure domestically on May’s opposite numbers to sign a bad deal.

All of which can be navigated by an astute diplomat. As to the question of whether that diplomat is May, however, it’s worth taking a look at that “100 per cent commitment to Nato” that she secured from Donald Trump, which even a generous marker would struggle to get to 60 per cent. Trump has yet to appoint a Nato ambassador and his Secretary of State is still sounding equivocal about standing by Nato members who don’t pay up.

Getting from today’s papers to a good Brexit deal is going to require an impressive feat of statecraft. Past performance isn’t necessarily an indicator of future returns. But the outlook for May so far isn’t good.