‘Find strength from the ashes of weakness’: Theresa May’s Brexit strategy

The Prime Minister is successfully playing up her own weaknesses to win over European allies to her positions.

Theresa May is weak, that is an unavoidable fact. She serves not at her own pleasure but at the pleasure of her party’s MPs, most of who are on the look out for a successful replacement for a leader that has been in post little over a year. Her election blunder has left the PM at the head of a warring cabinet unable to change anything, or if she dare risk being forced out by those sat closest to her. June’s results may have left her weak and unable to fight back, bit that isn’t stopping her from using that to her advantage in the one arena that has allowed her to maintain her position in №10: Brexit.

Theresa May’s Brexit red-lines and desires have always been rather limited. Her insistence on leaving the European Single Market, Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice is about all the UK Government have actually outlined, with little in the way of policy as far as the future relationship is concerned. This has meant MPs have been open to debate the future relationship, with some going as far as pondering falling to WTO-terms as desirable, and others wanting to stay in an EEA-like arrangement. Whatever MPs’ positions, it has made May look weak and the Tories directionless.

That was until she stepped into the negotiation chamber in Brussels on Friday. Having spent weeks on the back-foot, May walked into the chamber alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in a show of unity not seen among the three biggest EU states in some time. Macron may have resorted to attacking the Brits over the ‘financial settlement’, but even Merkel accepted that the EU had to begin to move towards Mrs. May. European Council President Donald Tusk said that the deadlock had been ‘exaggerated’ in the press, and joined other leaders in a serious appreciation of Theresa May.

What united them all is Theresa May’s playing-up of her own weakness. If she had to go home with her tail between her legs, there would be pressure for her to walk-away from the talks and begin preparing for a ‘No Deal’ situation. If she refused, people would call her weak on the one thing that was keeping her in office, and the Eurosceptics would move to replace the Prime Minister with someone who would walk away — most likely either Boris Johnson or Priti Patel. The fear among European Heads of Government of facing a ‘Boris’ figure is so much that they managed to rally around May in a way no one currently is.

Whether this effect will last into the future is yet to be seen. If Theresa May and her Government manage to unite somewhat and place her in a better position of strength domestically, however temporary, will EU Leaders still be afraid of the threat of Boris Johnson, and thus a walk-out with no budgetary contributions? Obviously the risk for May is always going to be here now, and any slip-ups will trigger questions about her position, so whatever position May is in, EU Leaders should, if they are wise, take note. They must be the ones to put May into that better position in order to keep her in place for the next two to three years.

Theresa May is too weak for a stand-off in either London or Brussels. When Merkel says the EU must move, she is realising that Theresa May is now the best hope for any conciliatory outcome of these negotiations. Britain needs to remain a friend and partner of the EU; not walk-away. Any further weakening of Theresa May places too much probability of the former situation becoming a reality.

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