Grisly Panto

Glen Newey

Theresa May and other leaders born to clergymen, like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown, are said to have a ‘moral compass’, a higher sensibility denied the rest of us. But do they? Maybe if subsistence depends on passing off the bizarre as unimpeachable dogma, one grows adept in glossing absurdity. Mere U-turns in policy, betrayals of binding pledges, become child’s play alongside hob-nobbing with Jesus or imbibing his bodily fluids in the guise of dodgy Merlot. From there it’s a short step to salchowing over a burka ban, or signing the Lisbon Treaty in hugger-mugger.

May's moral compass seems to have turned into a common-sense bypass. Now that she's sprung the election on the country, she has to do real-world stuff – diplomacy with the EU for example – while carrying on the grisly panto of electioneering. Lines crafted for one audience prove less credible to another. May went on the Andrew Marr programme on Sunday to front her Brexit policy after a catastrophic working dinner with Eurocrats in Downing Street a few days earlier. When the truth leaked out via the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung at the weekend, May's election progress – she'd told her guests that she fully expects to be re-elected in June – was briefly interrupted for a bit of Brussels-bashing.

May's handlers fed her the line that the FAZ’s scoop was 'Brussels gossip'. Even the preposterously suave European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, owned to coming out of the talks ‘ten times more sceptical’ than he went in. (Among the guests was May’s super-spad Nick Timothy, who lambasted Juncker as a 'comic-strip Euro-villain' in a blog post last year.) No doubt May made Juncker wise to the fact that until 8 June, any attitude struck by Number Ten comes weaponised for election purposes. Juncker was reportedly amazed when May suggested that the problem of British and EU expats could be resolved in a Council meeting at the end of June; Juncker observed that given the complexity of, say, healthcare entitlements, this timetable has no chance of being met.

May insisted that Britain owed the EU no money, since the EU treaties say nothing about it. One of Juncker's people remarked that the union isn't a golf club. When Davis said the EU couldn't force Britain to pay up, Juncker said that if it didn't there'd be no trade deal. At 7 a.m. on Thursday, he got on the blower to Angela Merkel, who added to her Bundestag address that morning a mention of the 'illusions' of some people in Britain about Brexit. Jeremy Cliffe, the Economist’s man in Berlin, tweeted that Juncker told Merkel that May was living in 'another galaxy' and 'deluding herself'. Commission sources are also said to rate the chance that the Brexit talks flop at ‘over 50 per cent’.

That all this wound up in the FAZ can hardly be an accident. Small wonder if May's grandstanding for domestic electoral consumption is met with leaks from Juncker's side about what got said over the sorbet. May's problem is that she has to hang tough, in the time-hallowed posture of British premiers towards the EU, and strike poses that the Commission may – and the ‘fiat Brexit, pereat mundus’ ultras in her own party will – take literally. The net effect may well be to push the country, and its strong and stable leader, to the zero option of no deal.

'Let us make Brexit a success,' May reportedly told Juncker. The president replied: 'Brexit cannot be a success.' He added: 'The more I hear, the more sceptical I become.' As May told Marr, the fiasco shows – like nurses going to food banks and everything else – that 'you need strong and stable leadership to conduct these negotiations.’


  • 2 May 2017 at 7:48pm
    Jams O'Donnell says:
    May will eventually be shown to be even more of an incompetent than Cameron. It can't come soon enough, but it probably won't be before she leads us all over the cliff.

    • 4 May 2017 at 1:52pm
      joepraxis says: @ Jams O'Donnell
      This election is about crushing Labour. The Tories are all about "who runs the show after Brexit'. As long as it's them they don't give a proverbial. Good luck with that

  • 2 May 2017 at 8:07pm
    Diplodoctus says:
    It's early days, but perhaps not too complacent to point out that the hallowed tradition of EU negotiations is for each side to exaggerate the unreasonableness of the other in order that both appear all the more statesmanlike once a deal is reached. Sometimes the sides will even agree a joint communique that positively conspires in this. The heads-of-government virtual trade union usually takes care that no summit, how ever disastrous, ever appears to end in failure.

    • 2 May 2017 at 8:45pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Diplodoctus
      That is true but on this occasion one side contains May, Boris, Davis and Fox. Which makes it entirely different.

      The comparable event is Cameron blocking an EU treaty out spite in 2011 which seemed unbelievable at the time but was clearly the start of this entire farce.

      The result was the other members did exactly what they wanted anyway in a new grouping which excluded the UK. It also worth noting that Clegg was fully on board with this idiocy.

    • 3 May 2017 at 11:54am
      SinisaMihajlovic says: @ Diplodoctus
      No summit ever appears to end in failure. That has more to do with the process of spin. Just like for a football manager, no result is ever disastrous in retrospect if you consider the context. What both sides are saying now are, as you imply, ways of creating that context - letting people know how difficult this will all be. There appear to be serious obstacles in the way of a deal, and both sides appear to have the opinion that it's better to have no deal than give the other side what they want. That's to say: we need compromise. If there is no deal, both "sides" can tell their electorates that it was the other sides fault, and therefore not their failure.

      Some parts of the press have whipped up an angry electorate: they are the ones in charge here, not May - and I think she knows it (she saw how quickly Osborne lost any support once the press turned on him). After all this, to submit to EU demands of funding would be a very difficult sell. To tell people "you can have your cake and eat it" and then have to say, well actually you can't, oh and by the way you have to pay for it, too - would be the end of her career.

      Too many promises were made about leaving the EU. Those who made them were aware they wouldn't be the ones negotiating. When it goes wrong, they can just blame the negotiators. End of May's career either way, unless Dacre's affection for her is as real as it appears to be.

  • 2 May 2017 at 8:09pm
    kooijman says:
    All this pre-negotiation posturing is so utterly stupid.Are these world-power governments, or sandbox potentates? "My daddy is stronger than your daddy, nah nah nah nah nah." Please grow up. Otherwise there is a good chance that things get out of hand, and both sides suffer far more damage than already will be the case, without all this juvenile stuff. The welfare of millions of people is at stake, for Pete's sake.

    • 2 May 2017 at 8:35pm
      Paul Cairns says: @ kooijman
      Panto is much too kind a term. The Tories' diehard EUphobic fringe, clutching their engineered referendum majority, are set to inflict damage on the whole of Europe. What a preposterous waste of everybody else's time and energy - all the while our real problems like regional and educational inequality as ever lie ignored, neglected and fester. Maybe the EU will be found spiteful and uncooperative - but who could blame them? The British bigots have imposed this nightmare on Europe and now stand waiting, ready armed with their usual arsenal of bitter accusation; variations of 'Typical', 'Well, I told you so', 'Just what you can expect from these European types' and so on. At least Nero packed in some useful violin practise while Rome was burning to the ground

    • 3 May 2017 at 2:17am
      robin bale says: @ Paul Cairns
      This is a shitshow. The Tories have to own it, however. It's been clear from the start - it has been made abundantly clear - what the EU red lines are. The idea that May, channeling Thatcher, can change any of these is ridiculous to any sane observer. So her proclamations that she'll be "bloody difficult" are made for a domestic audience; as the article states. The local swivel-eyed will love it, everyone else will wonder what mechanism delivered such a rare prize to occupy the PMs office.

      I'd advise anyone feeling some residual respect for May's approach to watch Yvette Cooper's question during PMQs last week; the money shot is May's expression. I'm sure she doesn't believe that looks can kill; that's an infantile belief. But some part of her apparently still does and surfaces in the seconds in between her standing up to "answer" and the speaker's intervention to make sure that she is heard. It's really a disturbing bit of footage. Ascribing to May a retention of the belief in the killing look is really a charitable view of it. A less charitable view would be that she has a less-than-puddle-deep intellect that finds challenges deeply incomprehensible and probably treasonous.

    • 3 May 2017 at 4:04am
      Joe Morison says: @ kooijman
      The welfare of millions is indeed at stake, but given that the UK earns 12% of its GDP through exports to the EU, and the EU27 earns 3% of its GDP through its exports to the UK, it's fairly obvious who is going to suffer most if things do get out of hand.

  • 3 May 2017 at 4:00am
    Keith Johnson Wellington NZ says:
    From the vantage of Wellington New Zealand, May's approach seems deeply incomprehensible. We have been years here in NZ touting and trolling ourselves around the world looking for trade deals, being the original orphans from big trading blocks since the UK joined the EU in 1973. Our experience tends to confirm that insulting potential trade partners is a poor strategy.

  • 3 May 2017 at 4:39am
    Stuart says:
    This is deeply depressing and lacking in any sort of humanity, particularly to one living in Paris with Cancer and Primary Progressive MS and arthritis of the hip replacement kind. One who has been supremely well treated by the French medical system and French Social Security, and all at France's expense.

    I told the French system that as a fully paid up British pensioner the UK is responsible for my healthcare. The French reaction was "Don't worry about that, your wife is French, so we'll take care of the costs, you concentrate on yourself, the treatment and getting better." Note that May before you bleat about EU health tourists, and may I suggest that you be ashamed?

    For me the sum total of UK involvement in my life has been HMRC taxing my pension by PAYE at source, so that France gets nothing. That is it, I use no UK services at all and haven't for the last 24 years.

    In the meantime Brexit has ensured that the Pound dropped like a stone on the exchange market, thus ruining both my sterling pension and us in the process.

    I suspect that I'm far from alone in receiving no benefits whatever from the UK while at the same time being denied a Brexit referendum vote. A Brexit vote would have been our only way to attempt to protect our UK pensions, but we were told "by living abroad for more than 15 years you demonstrate a lack of interest in the UK" I would have thought that a UK Sterling pension ensured an interest in the UK. Now the atrocious May has refused to say that the Triple Lock pension protection will be kept.... so it won't will it?

    Those of us who worked for most of our lives in the UK, paid our UK taxes and SS contributions, who hold full UK passports, but live within sight for Pete's sake across a few miles of water, are being mugged and raped by the miserable May's shoddy Concervitave party behaviour. Now we UK pensioners are slopping about in the bilges of the bugger Boris and Naff Nigel's trecherous Brexit con.

    All of us on this side of the Channel know that the EU needs urgent reform, of course it does. However, it seems typical of the English - as opposed to the Scots who always were more open to Europe - that their 'little englander' attitude has knifed the EU when it most needed constructive input, and has possibly fatally injured it. How to win friends and influence people .......

  • 3 May 2017 at 8:59am
    timonscreech says:
    I'm betting on a leadership challenge in the Conservative Party about a year from now. All the reelected Tory MPs will by then be thinking about their seats in 2022, with much impoverished electors. Likely Hammond will become leader, not, alas, to abort Brexit, but at least to mitigate it.

  • 3 May 2017 at 9:09am
    Paul97 says:
    A young woman friend of mine expressed what I think perfectly.

    "I voted for the principle of national sovereignty and I expect to suffer for this choice. You do know there have been actual *wars* of independence, don't you? It will not be easily won. A lot of Remainers seem to be saying that they are *not* prepared to suffer for the principle of national sovereignty and that if we suffer just one jot of inconvenience or anxiety, we should have remained."

    • 3 May 2017 at 8:42pm
      streetsj says: @ Paul97
      How refreshing

  • 3 May 2017 at 11:27am
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Herr Junker opines that if the UK fails to pay its Brexit bill there will be no access to free trade with the EU.
    It seems to me that without some sort of golden handshake from the UK the EU's finances are about to become (even more) parlous. And without free trade access then the UK economy could be harmed (though, incidentally, so could that of the EU).

    Sounds like there are a lot of reasons for both sides to find the middle ground.

    • 3 May 2017 at 1:48pm
      IPFreely says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      They will, they will. I like the analogy above about the Football manager always finding something positive about events on the park even when they lost 6-0. When a few of those banks move their tents to Frankfurt we'll hear some moaning at the bar as well.

  • 3 May 2017 at 2:55pm
    XopherO says:
    I am glad I live in France at the moment, despite the threat from the NF, which will probably be seen off. The UK, England in particular, seems to have gone completely mad, with the Foreign Office in complete disarray and apparently incapable of bringing some sanity to what is being said by our 'negotiators'.

    However the rise of xenophobia is not really a rise, it has always been there, as my French wife will tell you - she was continually insulted over nearly 30 years of working in England - it has simply been given an even freer licence. I cannot see England recovering from this nastiness for a long long time. Tolerance? - it was always a bit of a myth. We imposed quotas on Jews coming to the UK after the War, just like the USA and other nations. So we (and the USA - worth reading Arthur Miller's only novel 'Focus') supported the creation of Israel out of a kind of a spirit of anti-semitism! Probably one of the most destabilising things of the post-war era.

    As to sovereignty, I really never noticed a significant loss after 1973. And if we wish to continue trading with the EU we will have to obey all those 'silly' rules and regulations, which create a level playing field. England has never liked a level playing field - we always want to get one up on Johnny Foreigner. And the confusion continues between the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. And we won't get one up on the EU negotiators, so we'll take our bat home. When will we, and Mrs May, and for God's sake, David Davis, grow up? Panto, farce or circus? All three.

  • 3 May 2017 at 6:24pm
    Michael Wells says:
    Juncker "preposterously suave", shurely shome mishtake??? I think you might be on the wrong galaxy here or perhaps in a parallel universe.

    I agree with your sentiments and love the vocabulary and verbal fireworks, but can hardly take Juncker more seriously than May.

    • 3 May 2017 at 8:47pm
      streetsj says: @ Michael Wells
      "Preposterously suave" is, presumably, another version of "tired and emotional".

  • 3 May 2017 at 7:29pm
    Graucho says:
    As the impending government difficulties and pitfalls in the negotiations become apparent, Corbyn's utter stupidity in allowing her to call the election and giving her a get out of jail free card becomes ever more apparent.

  • 5 May 2017 at 11:48am
    PaulJoppa says:
    But, I suspect the "meddling Eurocrat" line peddled by May will play well with the Leave voters who want someone to blame for the frustrating progress

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