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4 April 2017

Theresa May’s policy vacuum will harm her Brexit efforts

Rows such as Gibraltar take up the space where the government's programme should be.

By Stephen Bush

The war for Gibraltar rumbles on. David Davis and Boris Johnson have both been sent out to smooth things over with Spain and Germany.  Theresa May, meanwhile, has attempted to laugh off the row by jokingly quoting Winston Churchill’s “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”.

“May seeks to ease tensions over Gibraltar” is the Guardian‘s splash. But the Sun isn’t joining in with the charm offensive: “Up Yours, Senors” is their splash. In the Times, Francis Elliot and Lucy Fisher report that leaving Gibraltar out of Theresa May’s Article 50 letter and not objecting to its inclusion in the European Commission’s response was intended to give Spain a “cheap win” over Britain. Downing Street and the Brexit department both underestimated the scale of the row the Rock would provoke here in the UK. (A senior government source has denied the “cheap win”  tactic, but they would, wouldn’t they?)

The good news is that Madrid has two cheap wins: a meaningless diplomatic coup as far as the EuCo letter is concerned, and the pleasure of provoking London into making asses of themselves. And frankly, if May spends the next two years suffering humiliation after humiliation in order to get a deal in which Britain pays to for the single market access it needs, she won’t get a bad rap from the history books, though she certainly will get a bad rap from her own party and the Brexit press.

And, to reiterate what I said yesterday: Spain’s diplomatic victory really doesn’t change Gibraltar’s rights at all.  

But the Gibraltar row speaks to a couple of problems Downing Street has as it embarks on the next two years. The Sun‘s frontpage today has European diplomats talking about the monstering the British tabloids gave to Jean-Claude Juncker when he was seeking to become President of the European Commission. It wasn’t just David Cameron who was keen to prevent Juncker from taking that post, but that most of his would-be allies in doing so began to feel domestic pressure not to “cave to the Brits” meant that it became impossible to do so.  

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That for the first year of the Article 50 process, most of the major players will be preoccupied with their own elections means that non-stories like the Gibraltar affair will take up a great deal of time and oxygen, sapping goodwill on both sides. That the government doesn’t have much of an agenda beyond Brexit means those rows will take up the space where the May programme should be. (News, like an ideal gas, expands to fill the space available to it.)

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Unlike Cameron, May doesn’t feed the news beast with regular stories. Whether the lack of a policy programme is because of the government’s small majority or because there is no there there is up for debate. But the combination means that the PM’s efforts in Europe will continue to take place against an unhelpful backdrop.