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.’