Why Angela Merkel fears the political demise of Theresa May

The Brexit talks need to be done and dusted by October 2018 – but that's looking unlikely.

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What connects: a Guardian story about a Conservative whip sending alarming letters to universities, a Times one about Angela Merkel's anger over leaks that undermine Theresa May, and the Prime Minister's bizarre insistence that there will be no transition period, only one of implementation?

Academics, both remainers and leavers, have condemned Chris Heaton-Harris, a devout Brexiteer, for having written letters to every university asking for the names of professors "involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit". 

These, bluntly, are the people who Angela Merkel fears will take control of the Brexit talks if Theresa May's premiership collapses – people whose aims cannot be reconciled with the reality of trade negotiations in the 21st century, and whose leadership can only end in a disorderly and destructive Brexit.

They're also the people the PM has to avoid spooking if she is to make it to the end of the Article 50 process. Because of the need to ratify Article 50 through heads of member state governments and the European Parliament, the talks need to be done and dusted by October 2018. The EU-UK talks are unprecedented, both because of the depth of the regulatory convergence and ease of trade that already exists, but because there is no precedent anywhere for a trade deal designed to create barriers between trading nations rather to ease them. And because everyone in the EU has their own domestic politics, no one knows when it will become in the interests of some politician in some member state (or perhaps, an incoming Labour government) to delay the talks for political advantage.

The United Kingdom took seven years to fully join the European Economic Community, which itself had only been going for 16 years. The reasonable aim for Britain's exit talks is agreement over the terms of exit and agreement in principle over the shape of the new arrangement, with an indefinite transition. Michel Barnier became the most senior politician to say this publicly yesterday. 

The PM knows this too. But she also knows that even speaking of the transition as anything other than "implementation" may bring about her political demise. And the difficulty of reconciling the whole of the Conservative Party to that essential truth about trade may yet bring down her and any chance of an orderly exit from the EU. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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