European Council president Donald Tusk has – with impeccable courtesy – made a Brexit intervention that is profoundly unhelpful for Theresa May. The Prime Minister used her well-received conference speech to reaffirm her commitment to her Chequers plan, loathed by Tory Brexiteers and dismissed by the EU.
It was fantasy politics and the fundamental dynamics of the Conservative debate on Brexit remain unchanged. But what May did do, according to one senior Tory at the forefront of the campaign to “chuck Chequers”, was “buy herself space and time” from her own party. That honeymoon has lasted approximately 24 hours. Tusk tweeted this afternoon:
From the very beginning, the EU offer has been a Canada+++ deal. Much further-reaching on trade, internal security and foreign policy cooperation. This is a true measure of respect. And this offer remains in place. #brexit
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) October 4, 2018
For May, this is neither respectful nor helpful: Tusk knows she cannot accept such a deal because it would require differential arrangements for Northern Ireland and a border in the Irish Sea, a scenario noisily denounced by the DUP in Birmingham.
He also knows that this is exactly the sort of deal the Brexiteers are pushing for, and has used exactly the same language that they use to describe it. The only way that he might have made this more obvious is by prefacing it with “Cripes!” or an anecdote about the SAS reserves. May’s Eurosceptic opponents have long complained that their plan, dismissed out of hand by the Prime Minister, is in fact exactly the sort of thing the EU would accept.
There is no better ammunition for this argument than what Tusk has said this afternoon. For the Prime Minister, it is a sharp return to reality. Chequers is unpalatable to her party, parliament and the EU. Whichever direction she moves in to please Brussels will only increase her woes among Conservative MPs, making the job of securing a Commons majority for any deal she presents to them even harder. And, as Tusk has demonstrated this afternoon, just about everybody is working to make that painful reality as painful as possible.