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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Theresa May fights back after European rebuff

British prime minister attacks the European Union but time is running out for a Brexit deal

British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement on the Brexit negotiations on September 21, 2018. Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement on the Brexit negotiations on September 21, 2018. Getty Images

To judge by the reaction on the front pages of Britain's eurosceptic newspapers on Saturday morning, Theresa May ended the week triumphant.

Having woken up on Friday to talk of humiliation at the hands of the 27 EU leaders, who had summarily rejected her Chequers proposals out of hand at a summit in Austria on Thursday, the British prime minister fired back.

She took direct aim at EU Council President Donald Tusk, who had told her the day before that her Brexit plan – which would see the UK cherry-picking which EU rules and laws it would observe – “would not work”.

“Yesterday, Donald Tusk said our proposals would undermine the single market. He didn’t explain how in any detail or make any counter-proposal. So we are at an impasse,” Mrs May declared, perhaps settling a score with the man who had used Instagram to mock her.

She claimed that her European partners had acted in bad faith, saying: “I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same. A good relationship at the end of this process depends on it.”

Mrs May reiterated the view that no deal remained better than a bad deal, explaining that in the context of Northern Ireland’s future and the possibility of it remaining in a European customs union, “it is something I will never agree to – indeed, in my judgment it is something no British prime minister would ever agree to. If the EU believe I will, they are making a fundamental mistake.”

"May’s finest hour", trumpeted the Daily Express on Saturday’s cover, while the tabloid Sun dusted off an old familiar and portrayed a giant version of the PM standing on the white cliffs of Dover and raising two fingers to the continent to say ‘UP EURS!’. The Daily Mail spoke of the "May Ultimatum" to the EU and signed up to the "very well, alone" sentiment of her combative address.

But while the speech – so unexpected that it was temporarily postponed because of technical issues in Downing Street – against a backdrop of two Union Jacks went down well with the broader sections of the body politic, a more pessimistic response came from the foreign exchanges.

After Mrs May railed at the “impasse” that she claimed the European Union had created, the foreign exchange markets voted with their pocket books and sterling dropped by 1.5 per cent against the dollar, the currency’s largest downward daily lurch for the year.

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And the prime minister also came under criticism from her own side. Tim Stanley, a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph, often described as the house journal of Mrs May’s Conservative party, launched a broadside on Twitter against the speech, declaring himself “unimpressed” and “irritated” by it.

He pointed out how Mrs May’s claim that the EU had not given reasons for rejecting Chequers did not stand up: “It has. Countless times. Yes, there were insults on Thursday but the context is months of the EU saying ‘we can’t do this'.”

And he poured ridicule on the idea that Mrs May was ready to take the UK into a no-deal scenario: “She’s not prepared for ‘no deal’. You can’t stand there and level a threat you can't back up. THERE IS NO ECONOMIC PLAN FOR NO DEAL. That’s madness and deeply irresponsible.”

Attacking the patriotic nationalism that Mrs May was stirring up, Stanley added: “Save the ‘Queen May’ rubbish for anyone interested, although that lonely boat sailed quite a while ago."

Instead, he called for coherent, long-term planning for a no-deal scenario and a willingness to consider the Norway model for relations with the EU.

Having stood up to Brussels, Mrs May can hope the hard right of her party is at bay and she can fulfil the short-term aim of shoring up support in her party before a fractious conference in October.

Yet as long as she clings on to the Chequers proposal for future trade with Europe, Mrs May will be under domestic pressure.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the European Reform Group of hard Brexit Tories, said after the failure of Salzburg that “there is … no reason to suppose that Chequers can work either for the UK or the EU”.

And any hope that she will one day cobble together a majority of MPs across the House of Commons to back an even closer deal plan looks unrealistic.

The clock ticks on towards the March 29, 2019 deadline, and the options available have yet again shrunk.