The new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is as historically challenged as his predecessor: Boris Johnson. Britain's emissaries play the victims in Salzburg. And Prime Minister Theresa May is still making demands.
He gave his all for the crowd of fringe Tories at this week's Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. It's known that Boris Johnson can be a rousing speaker; perhaps to make sure his prime ministerial ambitions were taken seriously, he had even combed his hair. Onward and upward, he told his audience, against Theresa May's "outrageous" Chequers proposal.
The proposal is the prime minister's attempt to be half in and half out of the European Union's single market and customs union. EU leaders had already officially torn Chequers to pieces at the recent summit in Salzburg. But Johnson keeps kicking this cadaver.
"This is not pragmatic," Johnson thundered at the Conservatives' conference. "It's not a compromise, and unstable." And, he said, "if we remain half in, half out, we protract this toxic tedious business." He also called the proposal undemocratic.
A second referendum would be disastrous and undermine trust in British politics, Johnson said. So, what does the pretender to 10 Downing Street propose — apart from building a bridge between the UK and Northern Ireland? He wants a Canada-plus, -plus, -plus deal with the European Union that will deliver frictionless trade across borders and almost all other advantages of membership. It would be a free trade agreement with all kinds of bonuses (which the European Union is certain not to offer on Johnson's terms, but it looks good on paper and sounds combative in a conference hall).
Hunt's history lesson
When Jeremy Hunt took over the Foreign Office from Johnson in summer, he tried to cut a more sober and statesmanlike figure than his notoriously unscrupulous predecessor. Johnson had once compared the mild-mannered French president Francois Hollande to a Nazi prison guard.
But Hunt needed just one speech at the Tories' meeting in Birmingham meeting to show that he is a kindred spirit. Trying his hand at rabble-rousing he likened the European Union to a Soviet-style prison that keeps its inmates from leaving. What a man won't do to further his leadership ambitions.
This demonstrates that the new foreign secretary is either historically challenged or crazed by ambition. An EU spokesman proposed that Hunt open the occasional history book. Some politicians were more forceful. Soviet rule had "ruined the lives of three generations" in her country, said Baiba Braze, Latvia's ambassador to the bloc, whereas the European Union had brought "prosperity, equality, growth and respect." And Lord Peter Ricketts, a former top diplomat, called the remarks "rubbish, unworthy of a British foreign secretary."
What is it in the Tories' collective psyche that makes them think it's a good strategy to insult their counterparts at the negotiating table?
Britain at war
After the Salzburg blowup 10 days ago, the British press was screaming about an ambush at dinner and that the European Union was ganging up on May. Certain outlets told readers back home that
the prime minister was being bullied — slapped in the face, even — by inflexible and unreasonable EU leaders. Matchless in its nastiness, The Sun ran the awkward pun "EU Dirty Rats."
There was plenty of the spirit of Dunkirk and the other greatest hours of British history — Think Churchill's promise that "we shall fight on the beaches." Some Brexiteers seem to think this is a war movie.
Why nobody listens
Much of this could have been avoided had May, her ambassadors and aides ever read the continental press or listened to EU officials such as Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte have made perfectly clear that they will not damage the single market for the sake of the European Union's future relationship with the UK.
Talking about respect
May made her stand after getting back from Salzburg and used two Union Jack flags in the background to make her point. But the defiant statement was delayed because of a sudden power failure. There was no symbolism at all in that, of course.
When electricity was restored, the prime minister gripped her lectern and announced that she would not be bullied. The European Union should show more respect and come up with a counteroffer to her Chequers plan, May said, not just say no without proposing another solution. She left out the fact that the European Union's proposals have been on the table since the beginning.
Was May really strutting around like a hoodlum and demanding respect from the European Union? Her biggest leverage is that the UK's Brexit could be hard as granite: That's what you call cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Nevertheless, May repeated, it's Chequers or no deal at all. Twitter loved that.
Full steam ahead, Captain May!