Act One, Scene One: an EU working lunch on Brexit, somewhere in Salzburg. And no, despite the location, it’s not going to be a remake of the Sound of Music. The clichés just don’t stack up. Donald Tusk is no Captain von Trapp. Angela Merkel no Reverend Mother. Theresa May won’t end up dancing down the mountainsides in a wimple. Britain won’t leave its old European home, literally embracing the Swiss model. There will be no closing friendly chorus in response: “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu/adieu, adieu, to EU, and EU and EU.”
Brexit just isn’t playing out like a film. It’s fury and fudge, a battle between realism and fantasy that isn’t fun to watch and even worse to star in. No one will ever dress up with their friends to sing along to this flop of a show.
But still, its got to go on, which is why the Prime Minister will be in the most gemütlich of Austrian cities today and tomorrow to take part in what might look like a crunch summit viewed from Westminster but, on the official invitation from the EU’s President Donald Tusk, is nothing more than “an informal meeting”. His note to EU leaders pointedly puts Brexit in the “and finally” category. “Unfortunately, a no-deal scenario is still quite possible. But if we all act responsibly, we can avoid a catastrophe,” it ends.
As a script line, that’s pretty much the same as “put the gun down quietly and no one’s gonna get hurt” just before the shooting starts. But at least they are talking about Brexit after months of pretending it is at the bottom of the EU’s to-do list, which is what Mrs May wants. As long as there’s discussion, and she’s still Prime Minister, she can always hope to pull off some sort of a deal that will allow her to present herself as the sensible type who kept her head while those around her lost theirs.
And, at the very least, it will allow her to go into the Conservative Party conference the week after next with a claim to have some sort of a plan — and that’s better than the hardline Brexiteers can do right now. Her Cabinet ministers might not respect her, but in public they’ll have to grin and clap.
So is that her strategy? It’s clear that Brexit is beginning to hurt and time is running out for words to become real. One downcast Whitehall official I spoke to this week, faced with making hurried plans for no deal, told me that, if things go badly wrong, “drugs will start running out and people will die”. Every day seems to bring news of relocation from the City of London. But this isn’t going to focus minds in Salzburg — and there’s a reason for that. What Britain wants, and what the EU wants, are two different things.
From the EU’s side, there’s been poker-faced solidarity — so far — behind a common position, which is to let the EU’s officials do the talking and keep pointing to the need to solve the Irish border problem. The EU got May to agree last December to the so-called Irish backstop, which either means the UK has to stay in the customs union (the dull-as-ditchwater mechanism that allows things to move inside the EU) or leave it, and create a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country.
Since the Democratic Unionists, who keep the Conservatives in power, don’t want that, everyone’s been going round in circles. Or, as Tusk puts it in his invitation note to the Salzburg meeting, “We should reconfirm the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland, so as to be sure there will be no hard border in the future.”
The British have been hoping that the EU will stop saying this and that leaders will start doing deals. Maybe President Macron? Maybe Merkel? Maybe the Austrians can help? And if you want to believe this dream then the past few days have certainly brought heart-warming headlines in some British papers. Spin or substance? The safe way to bet is that the EU is holding firm but just wants to seem cuddly, so that blame if things go wrong falls elsewhere.
Look at it this way. The Prime Minister can’t persuade her own party to back her plan. It would be odd after all these months if, at Salzburg, we find out that she has managed to persuade the EU.
And it’s not as if the EU needs to blink first. A few weeks of chaos after March 29 might encourage more firms to relocate to Paris, Dublin and Frankfurt. A gentle doing-over, to teach the UK the error of its ways. And that’s why all of a sudden it’s the Prime Minister who’s had to switch, too, from her monotonal mantra that “no deal is better than a bad deal” to telling everyone how very bad no deal actually would be.
This isn’t just because incredulous officials inside Government are starting to think ministerial madness might actually let it happen, and are working out how catastrophic it would be. It’s because the Prime Minister’s only hope of hanging on is to persuade at least some of her opponents that, however much they hate her Chequers plan (and the dreary slice of fudge it would become if she persists in negotiating it with the EU), it’s got to be better than a no deal.
She tried out her new message on Panorama this week: it’s my way or the hard way — but of course it isn’t true. In Parliament, MPs are forming gangs around all sorts of other ways forward and some of which are sensible. The problem for May is that her own gang (other than ministers who are paid to agree) isn’t very big or convincing — and the EU can see that perfectly well.
So in Salzburg they have no incentive to do anything other than string her along — unless (which is unlikely) this is the moment leaders realise no deal might be real, and actually panic. Surely they will wait until we panic first. And that might not be until after March 29.
What counts are numbers in Parliament. Can anyone win a majority for their flavour of the future? And, if so, which? There’s the Brexit ultras — the European Research Group supporters, an odd alliance of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. They loathe Chequers so much they will destroy anything like it. Some, maybe most, will peel off, if it came to a vote on a plan put by May, given that at least it would achieve their goal of getting Britain out of the EU. But not enough for the Tories to be sure they would win, given almost every other party’s MPs will be against and they blew their majority in 2017.
So if the Government can’t win with the help of the hardliners, what about softer Brexiteers and Remainers who can see a longer game? There are other groups on the Tory side. Some Brexiteers such as Dominic Raab and Penny Mordaunt are backing Chequers for now. Maybe they will support it in a vote, maybe they won’t. Either way they don’t have the numbers to impose their own plan instead.
So what about an alliance between adaptable Brexiteers and Remainers? Some, such as Nick Boles and Stephen Hammond, think the best form of Brexit — for now — would be a long-term close economic relationship with the EU involving membership of some of its associated bodies: obscure things mostly beginning in E, such as EFTA or the EEA. But again, without Labour support, not necessarily the numbers to make sensible ideas real.
And finally there’s perhaps the smallest Tory group of all, which doesn’t want to leave and favours a second referendum as the best way of sorting things out — people such as Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry. Can it win over Labour and enough on the Tory side to get a majority?
All of which takes the Brexit waltz back to where it starts in Salzburg. A Prime Minister who needs something from the EU to put to the Commons, in the hope that somehow she’ll get it through in the end. And a Commons that will probably stop her, but has no idea what will happen instead. This show might start with singing. But it could end with screaming.
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