European leaders have known for some time that the prime minister wasn’t up to the Brexit job. This week she’s proved it
The EU has no time for Theresa May, which doesn’t mean there is no flexibility in the Brexit timetable. Continental leaders have granted an article 50 extension, but not the one requested by the prime minister. She had pitched for a new departure date of 30 June. She was given 39 days fewer, until 22 May. And that date only stands if parliament ratifies the deal.
If May flunks another meaningful vote, the extension gets shorter – 12 April is the new cliff-edge that comes into view. That date marks the point at which Britain would have to start organising European parliament elections, should it want another even longer extension. A national change of heart on the whole Brexit business would still be welcome in Brussels but it is not expected, and the priority is to escort a troublesome ex-member off the premises with a minimum of disruption before those MEP ballots get under way.
Does May like this plan? It doesn’t matter. She wasn’t in the room where it happened. The summit conclusions were handed down to the petitioning nation as it paced around an antechamber. This is the power relationship between a “third country” and the EU. Britain had better get used to it.
The terms of the extension are not drafted for the prime minister’s benefit. They contain a message from the EU direct to the House of Commons. In crude terms: piss or get off the pot. If you want to leave with a deal, vote for the damned deal. If you are foolish enough to leave without a deal, do not blame us. Have a couple more weeks to think about it. But if you want something else, a referendum or a softer Brexit, work it out soon. And then send someone who isn’t Theresa May to talk to us about it.
EU leaders cannot say explicitly that they no longer want to deal with the current prime minister. Urging regime change is beyond the pale of normal diplomacy among democratic states. But there is no effort to conceal the frustration in May or the evacuation of confidence in her as a negotiating partner. The one thing everyone in Brussels, Berlin and Paris had most wanted to avoid from an article 50 extension was giving May a licence to carry on behaving as she has done for what feels like an eternity. They could no longer tolerate the hollow shell of a prime minister shuttling back and forth between Tory hardliners demanding fantasy Brexits and Brussels negotiators who trade in realities.
There is a difference between patience with the prime minister and readiness to help her country navigate through its current crisis. There are still stores of goodwill available for Britain in Brussels, but they cannot be unlocked by May.
The bankruptcy of May’s overseas enterprise has been coming since the day she set up shop in No 10. The squandering of credibility started almost at once, with the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign secretary in 2016. Only someone with a tin ear for European sensibilities would have given the top diplomat job to a man known on the continent as a rogue peddler of anti-Brussels propaganda.
Then there was the early negotiating period, during which EU leaders thought May’s robotic, inscrutable manner concealed a deep, strategic intelligence. They came to realise that there was no mask. The inanity – the reciting of “Brexit means Brexit” even in private meetings – was not the cover story for a secret plan. It was the plan.
The point of no return was the summit in Salzburg last September. May was invited to make the case for what was left of her “Chequers plan” to European heads of government. It was late. They were tired. There were other difficult matters to attend to. And instead of speaking candidly, persuasively, passionately or even just coherently, the British prime minister read mechanically from a text that was, in substance, no different from an op-ed article already published under her name in a German newspaper that morning. It was embarrassing and insulting. Many European diplomats say that was the moment when Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and others realised they were dealing with someone out of her depth, unable to perform at the level required for the job that needed doing.
A similar story is emerging from last night’s summit. May was asked about backup plans in the event that parliament rejects her deal a third time. She had nothing. She restated her determination that the deal should pass. This infuriating obtuseness is grimly familiar on this side of the Channel. Cabinet ministers recognise the experience of being desperate for some glimpse of the prime minister’s calculations. People who want to support her have needed some window into the workings of her political brain, maybe just a peek at her soul. They get nothing. It is hard to build trust with someone so closed and hard to stay loyal.
There was a Salzburg-style moment for pro-European Tories on Wednesday night, when the prime minister went on television to berate MPs for obstructing her deal. The spirit was demagogic, even if the style was typically charmless. Here was a besieged leader, emerging from her bunker, presenting herself as the champion of her people against a rotten parliament. This did not go down well with MPs of any stripe. But it was most counterproductive with moderate Conservatives who have voted for May’s deal twice already and both times seen her respond to defeat by borrowing ideas and rhetoric from the hardliners who have given her nothing but humiliation. She rewards enemies of compromise by becoming ever less compromising.
Wednesday night’s performance exposed something that many of May’s colleagues find uncomfortable to acknowledge: the prime minister’s failure at overseas diplomacy and her failure at domestic politics express a single fatal flaw. She is unable to communicate with others because she has lost the ability to be honest with herself. She has no outward-facing powers of persuasion but she also lacks the introspection necessary to take responsibility for the mess made by her obstinacy. She has crossed a line from stubbornness into megalomania.
That leads to a conclusion that Britain’s continental neighbours reached long ago. Even if the UK ends up leaving the EU on the terms outlined in the prime minister’s deal, her part in the story will very soon be over. She is finished. The problems with Brexit are much bigger than Theresa May’s failings as a leader. But those failings disqualify her from being part of a viable solution.
• Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist