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Theresa May triggers hive instinct

by Hugo Dixon | 03.05.2017

Viewed from the perspective of her narrow electoral interests, Theresa May could hardly have wished for anything better than the leak of her dinner from hell with Jean-Claude Juncker last week. It has allowed the prime minister to declare that the European Commission president will be the next person to discover that she is a “bloody difficult woman” and to accuse the EU politicians and officials of meddling in our election.

It has given May a golden opportunity to reiterate her main election campaign line: that the Brexit negotiations will be tough and getting the right deal requires strong leadership, i.e. hers, not Jeremy Corbyn’s. The more she can paint the EU as a beastly organisation making impossible demands, the more she hopes to get the British people to rally round her “strong and stable” leadership on June 8.

The prime minister is trying to trigger the hive instinct. She is using the row over the dinner to pose as a queen bee leading a swarm of brave Brits out to sting the nasty eurocrats attacking the hive. This is a crafty election ploy, but it is totally against our long-term interests. It will merely result in a hardening of positions on both sides and increase the risk that we will crash out without a deal – something that would be bonkers and totally self-defeating.

There are two main ways of resisting the hive instinct taking over.

One is to show that the Brexiters have totally misread the situation. During the referendum, they argued that the negotiations would be a walk in the park. Now they have the cheek to say we must all rally round May because the talks are going to be tough.

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David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said this morning on the BBC Today Programme: “It’s tough. I said it would be tough”. The snag is that this isn’t at all what he was saying during the referendum. Then he shrugged off remarks from EU leaders that we’d lose access to their markets by saying that, after we voted for Brexit, “the pressures on the countries that make up the EU will be different.” Germany, in particular, would be desperate to do a deal because its economy depended on their exporting BMWs and other cars to us, he insisted.

It’s good the Brexiters are now admitting how difficult the talks will be. But that merely shows they were either ignorant, or deliberately deceived the electorate on this, as on so many other issues last year. It means that the Brexit they sold was a false bill of goods – reinforcing the case that the voters should get a chance to say whether they still want to quit the EU when they see what Brexit actually means.

The other way of counteracting the hive instinct is to keep pointing out that our best interests will be secured by reaching an amicable agreement with the EU, not by picking a fight with it. The same, of course, goes for the EU: its interests will be best achieved by working with us rather than seeking confrontation.

We need statesmanship not short-term political point-scoring. We need a calm queen, not an aggressive one. But unless wiser heads prevail, the latter is what we’ll get.

The first paragraph was updated shortly after publication to include May’s reference to meddling by European politicians and officials.

Edited by Quentin Peel

Categories: Brexit Negotiations