Brexit Diaries 44: Return to the trenches for Theresa May | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.09.2018
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Brexit Diaries 44: Return to the trenches for Theresa May

It's back to the civil war for Prime Minister Theresa May, after dancing for the UK on the global stage. Meanwhile, Chequers is as "dead as a dodo" as Brexit talks drag on.

The prime minister had hardly opened the door to Downing Street after the summer break when the sniping began. After some weeks of only intermittent fire, it was back to full-out war. Brexiteers are giving their all to shoot down Theresa May's Chequers Brexit strategy, revealed in July, and with it the prime minister. All she can do now is take cover and hunker down.

What hurts most, of course, is when former allies take aim. Former Brexit minister David Davis, who threw in the towel over the Chequers proposal, is now enjoying his revenge. Speaking on Sunday, he vowed to vote against May's plan and any attempt to find compromise with the European Union.

Davis said the plan, which called for a free trade area with the EU for goods, agriculture and food in a sort of customs union, was "almost worse than being in" the European Union. With her slim majority in Parliament, May is vulnerable and about 20 Tory ministers have come out against her. Among them are even some Remainers, who are still trying to scupper the whole idea of leaving the EU. It's a fractious bunch, with nothing but Brexit on their minds, completely preoccupied with internecine fighting.

Davis is not the only one on the warpath. The FoBs, or Friends of Boris (Johnson), are reportedly grouping to shoot down May's plan and put the former foreign secretary into Downing Street instead. Johnson is said to be getting help from May's former election strategist, Sir Lynton Crosby, who is in cahoots with the well-known gaggle of hard-line Brexiteers. However, with the Australian more or less losing the last election for May, any threat from him might be overrated.

The real danger for the prime minister will come at next month's Conservative Party conference — and her survival is not guaranteed. But after having been written off several times already, she might find herself echoing American writer Mark Twain and saying that reports of her death have been "an exaggeration."

Prime Minister Theresa May in breaks into dance whilst meeting with scouts at the United Nations offices in Nairobi

May was unable to contain herself in Africa, breaking out her dance moves twice during the trip

Dancing for the UK

By contrast, May's trip to three African countries last week to promote the UK on the global stage was pure relaxation — and it showed, with the cameras catching the prime minister at her most relaxed when she spontaneously indulged in a spot of dancing. 

In South Africa, May was swept away by the music and a group of schoolchildren, resulting in a stiff-legged shuffle of exquisite awkwardness, giving "dad dancing" a run for its money. Twitter roared with laughter, and May got the honorary title of "dancing queen" — a role in the next ABBA movie was beckoning. Some correspondents showed empathy, describing her style as "baby robot giraffe," while others simply called it "pure Maybot." But May was undeterred, and even broke out the moves at her last stop in Kenya, shuffling along with some girl and boy scouts.

Maybe it was all a cunning strategy to occupy the press, as the trip did not generate much in the way of tangible results. May had brought promises that the UK would grant African countries the same trade advantages as the EU after Brexit. All she got for her efforts were some grumblings from Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who noted that no British prime minister had visited his country for the last 30 years. The only one who had come was that "…man with the bike." Boris Johnson must have misbehaved greatly to have had his name so aggressively forgotten.

May's advisers should have told her that no head of government should ever engage in gratuitous dancing, at the risk of online ridicule. The only exception to this rule was former US President Barack Obama, a supremely gifted human being and a cool cat.

Watch video 02:43

UK faces prospect of no-deal Brexit

'Chequers is rubbish'

A disconcerting aspect in the current Tory wars against the Chequers deal is the view that it's already "dead as a dodo," according to Tom Brake, a lawmaker from the Liberal Democrat party.

The UK is flogging a dead horse, and the EU's negotiator Michel Barnier made that perfectly clear in his latest interview with German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, when he said the EU has its "own ecosystem that has grown over decades. You cannot play with it by picking pieces."

From the beginning, Brussels reacted to May's plan with skepticism. But now Barnier has spelled it out in the most stringent terms: the EU cannot allow the UK to cherry-pick regulations and enjoy partial access to the single market. It would be much easier if London decided to stay in – or completely out.

Accepting the "illegal offer" from London, said Barnier, would end the European project. And the 27 remaining EU leaders are not willing to risk that. The French diplomat added a little jab by telling European carmakers they would have to do "with fewer British parts" to enjoy future low tariffs on their exports.

The stern message inspired arch Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg to discover in Barnier a kindred spirit. The Tory MP was quoted as saying "Barnier agrees with me — Chequers is rubbish." Apparently, two people with mutually exclusive viewpoints can come to the same conclusion.

November is the cruelest month

Barnier also confirmed that the original October deadline for the end of the Brexit negotiations is now off the table, with November being the next goalpost — giving Tories another four weeks for squabbling.

Meanwhile, the world keeps turning. The head of the Japanese business lobby Keidanren explained in an interview with the Financial Times that his companies are getting "seriously concerned" about the lack of clarity over Brexit.

His German colleague Joachim Lang from the Federation of German Industry (BDI) also warned that "we have reached a critical phase," saying "the time that remains is incredibly short." Should both sides fail to reach an agreement by mid-November, German companies would start to implement their emergency plans for a no-deal Brexit. There would be interruptions to supply chains, and the UK industrial base would take a hit.

Lang also gave the dead Chequers plan another kick, saying a single market for goods was an absurd concept. Separating goods from services and the flow of people and finance is simply not possible in the modern economy, he said.

"You cannot pick one freedom and leave the other three on the sidelines," said Lang. Hopefully, that is now clear enough and the damn thing can be duly buried. Anybody want a Canada-style trade deal?

More Brexit Diaries

Brexit Diaries 43: Sweating bullets in London

Brexit Diaries 42: The Muppet Show continues

Brexit Diaries 41: The dream has died

Brexit quote of the week

Guy Verhofstadt, who leads the European Parliament's Brexit Steering Group, sees former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage as his archenemy. Verhofstadt has been battling it out with the staunch anti-EU campaigner for years.

Last Thursday he didn't let an opportunity to mock Farage pass him by when, at a recent auction at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition in London, a portrait of the Brexiteer failed to get a single bid.

How delicious when things go thoroughly wrong for this vainest of men. Nobody wanted to spend £25,000 (€27,700/ $32,100) to display Farage in their living room. Maybe a posh pub will one day find a space for the painting, somewhere near the loos.

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