4 May 2017

Theresa May – the Dunkirk prime minister


Later this summer, Christopher Nolan’s latest film, featuring Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Mark Rylance amid a host of others, will be released to cinemas nationwide. Speaking about this project, Nolan said: “The empathy for the characters has nothing to do with their story …The problem is not who they are, who they pretend to be or where they come from. The only question I was interested in was: Will they get out of it?”

It seems appropriate that, in this summer of Brexit, Nolan’s film is “Dunkirk”.

Theresa May, being by her own proud admission a “bloody difficult woman” doesn’t care tuppence whether you have much in the way of empathy for her. Nor, in terms of the task facing her Government when it is re-elected next month, does it much matter who serves in her cabinet or what their own personal histories or Brexit preferences may be. The only question is: will they contrive to get out of a predicament that is largely one of the Conservative party’s own devising?

The British people like to think of Dunkirk as a glorious, though desperately close-run, salvation. A kind of plucky, against-the-odds victory and a narrow escape from unmitigated disaster. And, viewed from one perspective, it was all of that and more. An evacuation that allowed the British army, or at least much of it, to live to fight again. And so it did even if Dunkirk was also, by any reasonable analysis, a disaster. Successfully evacuating so many troops could not entirely compensate for, nor disguise, the fact that the battle had been lost.

Theresa May, then, is a Prime Minister charged with making a success of her own withdrawal from the continent. Though it is increasingly difficult to remember this, once upon a time she was in favour of Britain remaining a member of the EU; now she must make the best of what she once reckoned a bad job and, by doing so, declare it a kind of famous victory.

And there is an election to win, which must help explain her otherwise inexplicable approach to Brexit this week. According to the Prime Minister, “Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials. All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election.”

These threats, it must be noted, amounted to little more than the observation that the Brexit negotiation might not prove quite as smooth, easy, and frictionless as Britain’s pro-Brexit politicians and media cheerleaders spent years insisting they would be. Why, it turns out that the EU has interests of its own too and it may – shockingly – seek to protect these interests in the forthcoming negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister – with the full support of her spiritual advisers at the Sun, Mail and Telegraph – asks us to believe that Jean-Claude Juncker, previously considered an incompetent toper, has in the space of a week been transformed a master of the dark political arts, possessing a subtlety and grasp of strategy that allows him his proper place in the political pantheon alongside Metternich and Talleyrand.

Forgive me if I guffaw at this.

Besides, Mrs May knows full well that she is the only domestic beneficiary of the leaking of a doubtless partial and incomplete account of her Downing Street dinner with Monsieur Juncker. That leak – to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a paper notorious for its influence on British popular opinion – does not seem likely to catapult Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. On the contrary, it is all very useful to Mrs May.

There is a strand of British sentiment that relishes the idea, and indeed the reality, of Britain standing alone. It is the prism through which much of our relationship with the EU has always been viewed. One reason Brexit happened was that for decades notionally pro-European Prime Ministers did nothing but complain about the ghastliness of Europe. The EU never gave Britain a break but nobody puts Britain in the corner, damnit.

We have legitimate interests; they have unreasonable demands. Alas, the converse, if viewed from the perspective of the continent, also applies. But even allowing for the manner in which this week’s events may be understood as a piece of electioneering gamesmanship, it is hard to see how Mrs May’s accusations can really help secure Britain the deal it wants.

On the contrary, the only forces emboldened by this approach are those – on both sides of La Manche – for whom no deal at all would be an eminently satisfactory, and even desirable, outcome. That includes those parts of the EU establishment determined to make an example of Britain for daring to leave and, equally evidently, those elements within the British right for whom the purity of Brexit must not be compromised by, well, compromise. At present, it seems clear that the purity party has the upper hand when it comes to the battle for Mrs May’s affections.

All of which amounts to a hardening of positions that must make it harder for the Prime Minister to secure the deal she says she wants. That would be something that is as close to a facsimile of current trading arrangements as it possible. It cannot possibly be as good for Britain as the current trading relationship the UK enjoys with the European Union but, or so we are told, what we lose on the swings of trade we shall gain on the roundabouts of control and the slides of national self-esteem.

Well, maybe and let us hope so. Since Brexit is going to happen it would be best if it’s a successful Brexit. The question the Prime Minister must ask, however, is whether her actions this week have made that success more or less probable. I suspect the latter is more likely, not least because it is an unfortunate truth that the EU has the stronger negotiating position.

If you doubt this, I ask you to imagine a simple, but clear, example of a broadly comparable set of diplomatic negotiations. Suppose, for the sake of argument, Scotland had voted for independence in 2014. The negotiations to agree the orderly break-up of the United Kingdom – complete with a proper apportionment of assets and liabilities – would have taken place over a two year period. Alex Salmond, as First Minister of the soon-to-be-independent Scotland, assured his people that these would be smooth, easy, and frictionless. It was in everyone’s interests for a good deal to be struck. Rational and mutual self-interest would win the day.

Awkwardly, however, not everyone saw it like that. Some people in England took the view – though they were careful not to express it too often too publicly – that having repudiated Great Britain, the Scots would take what they were given and be grateful for it. As the smaller party to the negotiations, more was riding on the negotiations for the Scots than it was for the rump UK. A good deal was more important, more obviously necessary, for Scotland than the UK because the impact of a bad deal – or no deal – must be more greatly felt in a country of five million people than if it were diffused across a country of 60 million people.

Mutual self-interest is not the same as equal self-interest. Brexit must happen, but I suggest that if you want to see who is likely to have the upper hand in the negotiations you should think on how negotiations over the break-up of Britain would most likely go and then apply that thinking to the Brexit negotiations. Who, frankly, has most to lose?

And, remember too, that however glorious it was as an escape, Dunkirk was a defeat.

Alex Massie is a political commentator