The real and worrying significance of the Downing Street dinner leaks

2nd May 2017

The real significance of the leaks from the Downing Street dinner between Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker is what the detail reveals about the UK’s lack of grasp about the process and issues of Brexit, and about how weak the arguments are which UK ministers are seeking to deploy.

These details are telling, even taking due account of spin and bias.  These details are also such that they cannot have been invented (or even exaggerated) by the leakers.  (On these details see my thread on Twitter here, republished at my FT blog here.)

And so these details are worrying, and should be worrying – regardless of one’s views on Brexit.

In the UK, however, there will be pearl-clutching at the fact of the leaks, and attacks on the leakers.  Such responses are easier, one supposes, than dealing with the troubling detail.

There is one obvious way in which the UK government could avoid leaks about how badly prepared they are and about their poor grasp of the process and details.

But they would prefer official secrecy instead.

And so UK voters will only find out about the strengths and weaknesses of the UK government on Brexit, based on what was said in Downing Street, by EU leaks to a German newspaper (published in full in the print edition and not online).

If Brexit is to be a success then the UK government needs to improve its grasp of process and the issues, and put forward arguments which are realistic.  That the government is evidently not (yet) doing so is the significance of the leaks.

But the messengers, and the message, will be criticised or waved away instead.


My book “Brexit What Everyone Needs to Know” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

24 thoughts on “The real and worrying significance of the Downing Street dinner leaks”

  1. Is it just possible, not likely, but just possible that May has got this right ? I think we can safely say she knows more about the real position of the other 27 than we do. She maybe working on the assumption that once we agree on the payments we’re at their mercy so it’s simply impossible to agree the money expect in the round with the other issues eg. market access.

    1. A reasonable view, but the EU27 have made it clear that the cash is part of the divorce agreement and no trade talks until that is settled in principle. It depends how much the cash matters to them and how confident they are of going the the International Court to win it. I’m not sure the UK has any other negotiable ‘cards’ so it’s understandable that the May team might use it. However, the use of that card is very unlikely to do anything but cause enormous delays. How that’s in the UK’s best interests is a mystery.

    2. This is under the assumption that the other 27 are out to screw the UK.

      I don’t believe this is the case. They realise 2 years is not at all a lot of time to agree all that needs to be agreed to avoid chaos and want to crack on.

      I don’t understand how anybody could find settling joint historic commitments unreasonable. The fact that the UK makes a fuss over something so obvious is a signal to the others that the UK is no longer a reliable partner/party. Surely you can’t expect the others to remain solely responsible for eg pension payments to UK personnel?

  2. Its the start of the negotiations and Juncker is using a familiar tactic of trying to spook his negotiating adversary into conceding by put-on on a display of shock, ridicule, astonishment at the nativity and stupidity of his adversary’s offer.

    The best response is to meet shock with shock, stick to our guns and counter his tactics by preparing to leave as he is making impossible demands which will doom the talks to failure, and meanwhile use back channels to tell member states that Juncker is throwing away their chances of getting a decent deal.

    1. You think this is something you – we – are selling. It isn’t.
      Not even if it was newborn.

  3. May said to Juncker “Let’s make Brexit a success”. Surely she must realise that a successful Brexit is exactly what the EU doesn’t want? If she doesn’t realise this, then it shows a profoundly worrying lack of understanding of the EU’s negotiating constraints. If she does, then it was a nasty, insulting bit of heavy-duty passive aggression.

    Either way, it seems that the skills and instincts needed to rise to the top of the Conservative Party are not those of international statesmanship.

  4. May, as has been pointed out, has been wasting time. precious time. I have had serious doubts regarding her motives for the following reasons:
    The Diana complex: TM told her classmates in 6th form that she wanted to be PM. (Diana (told her classmates she was going to marry Prince Charles)
    Her own Remain vote.
    Her immediate insistence that it would be a Hard Brexit when nothing and nobody had demanded this.
    Taking time to talk to Vogue and pose for fashion photographs (with details of shops and costs). In my opinion not a good idea to mention trousers costing £1000,- when imposing stringent benefit cuts.
    Naming Singapore as a shining example on several occasions. Without explaining exactly why. Possibly to create tax-haven but that would hardly affect the larger part of the population.
    Calling a snap election for reasons not entirely clear.
    Negotiations with EU to be kept secret. Which is clearly impossible and not exactly democratic.

    1. She needs the negotiations kept secret because the details that come out are likely to drive support for Yes here in Scotland through the roof, making her resistance to another IndyRef impossible to resist.

      If we get within cooee of 60% the 27 are likely to start telling the UK side they cannot offer anything Scottish, cannot bargain with it as she cannot guarantee having control of it. Also the EU will get them gratis once we are Indepenendent in the EU, so why bargain for them?

      Scotland has the biggest, most productive fishery left in the EU, that is a pretty big carrot May wants to dangle in the face of Spain in particular. She is preparing to bargain away our fish, our oil, our positive food and drinks exports (spirits distilled in Scotland are a huge proportion of UK exports).

      The unionists are absolutely, pants dirtying scared shitless of another referendum up here. Which is why they are all bleating on about nothing else, in the Local elections. Local Councillors have no say in the matter. Scottish Tory leaflets are about nothing but the referendum, there are NO local policies. Not one.

      Last time it was Yes against the Coalition with those cuddly FibDems, on Sept 18 2014 Milliband’s Labour were 10 points ahead of the Tories, yes really, go check.

      This time it is Yes against the Tories. Tories in Westminster in full on Nasty, Hard Brexit mode, coming over all Patrician which is guaranteed to rile Scots. Scottish Labour is a busted flush, their troops have all joined the SNP, Greens or RISE. There’s just the wrinklies left.

      Battle has not yet been joined, the Local elections and now the snap GE are getting in the way. Yet the polls are moving, in the right direction. Yes leavers can be reconciled with Yes Remain, we will lose a few but the Remain bit gains us the Middle Classes, those whose jobs rely on the EU, who are instinctive Remainers. iScotland offers a lifeboat from the clusterfuck which will be Brexit.

      As the news filters out, they will flock to us. Remember however large the bill will be, if we are Independent in the EU we will not be liable for any of it. Something we will be hammering on the doorsteps. All those hordes of English Brexiters can pay it.

  5. People in the UK seem incapable of seeing this sorry saga from the European perspective. The right-wing press keep repeating the idea that the EU is out to bully or punish us as if the EU started this whole thing – or that the EU has more to lose. Yet the EU is just reacting to an external threat by doing everything it can to protect its national interests – it owes us no favours, it’s the UK demanding divorce with full conjugal rights.

    The EU sees Brexit (both the political act and the economic consequences) as a disaster for the UK and deeply damaging to itself. As one EU spokesperson put it: “This is a lose-lose – our focus is now on damage limitation.” But the UK seems intent on maximising the harm done by ruling out the single market and the customs union.

    [The EU has trade agreements with 32 Commonwealth countries – when we leave, we will have to renegotiate all 32 deals separately. A 5% decline in our trade with the EU would be dreadful for our economy. We’d need to increase exports to BRICS countries by 25% just to compensate.]

    The EU sees no good outcomes from Brexit (not even the thought of getting rid of the stroppy kid who always demands special favours). The EU is in no doubt that we will leave – as Tusk said “There is no hard or soft Brexit – just Brexit.” (Which May has translated into Brexit means Brexit – and the EU agrees on this – as the leak from last week makes clear.)

    The EU now just wants to ensure the leaving is done as quickly and cleanly as possible. The Brits on the other hand have barely started packing and seem intent on creating as much mess as possible before they leave. This will further damage what standing we had left in the world.


    1. Just one little question: can anyone tell us anything the EU has managed to do quickly and cleanly?

  6. Juncker is approaching these negotiations on the basis that the UK has a settled position i.e. that it wants to leave the EU and has to accept the that benefits of EU membership will be lost.
    Mrs May and her team have to leave, but haven’t prepared the UK for the loss of those benefits.
    Consequently the UK can’t even, for example, acknowledge that existing financial commitments will have to be met.
    Presumably, Mrs May is looking for her increased majority to fend off MPs in Parliament when she is prepared to admit to the realities of a negotiated position.

  7. It seems abundantly clear that may called an early election to beat economic bad news which will diminish her popularity irrespective of who leads the opposition. Equally, she does not want to appear in public and face live questioning (as could be the case in a leaders’ debate) becuase she has no answer for any searching questions. This also explains her paranoia about not “revealing the negotiating position” and her wish that discussions with the EU be held in secret. It will not end well.
    Her wish for a bespoke deal is just that, a wish. She shows herself unwilling to compromise which would be fine if the UK position was strong, but any impartial analysis shows it not to be. Her calling of the early election and fibbing about the reason and her absolute shortage of policies or willingness to discuss the Tory record since 2010 show the weakness of her position which would ordinarily be fatal for a sitting government, but might carry the day against a poorly led and divided opposition.

  8. Let’s pose a hypothetical scenario: Theresa May is pursuing BEANO for domestic political purposes, and all UK moves should be viewed through a May/Tory domestic political lens.

    What would it look like?

    – In the very short term – aka runup to the elections – no progress is to be made, and the optics should have the UK at complete loggerheads on even the shape of the negotiating table.

    – After elections the “negotiations” should proceed slowly, with little progress being made. All until we end up in 2019 with the UK giving way on almost all the minor items, and a fully status quo “implementation phase” starting in 2019, until a permanent trade deal can be worked out.

    OK, what then?

    – There is no way the permanent trade deal can be done before the 2022 elections. The Tories take no real blame, as 3 years is obviously not enough time. The status quo “implementation phase” continues as the Tories run on finishing the job.

    – Pressure on the Tories to move from BEANO to Brexit only starts to build in 2024-2025 as the next elections come up on the horizon. At that point, decisions finally will have to be made.

    My point is that if we are to take my hypothetical scenario seriously, it’s in May’s interests for the UK to seem to be making no rapid progress with those dang intransigent Europeans for the next 8 years! And maybe it can be finessed another 5 years past that.

    Perhaps my scenario is impossible for some reason I don’t see. Perhaps it is wildly improbable for some reason I don’t see. But if one is to assume that May is not in favor of Brexit as policy she wishes to govern over, and also not willing to be against Brexit for domestic political reason, then she wants BEANO, and if her team is playing their cards correctly, it should look like what we’ve been seeing so far.

    (Of course, never count out sheer incompetence as an explanation. It would look like this too. But if you want to push the policy decisions as far out into the future as you can for domestic political reasons, playing at a total disconnect from those intransigent Europeans is how I’d play it…)

  9. The leak does reveal a lack of preparation on the UK side, but that is not the most significant thing about it. More significant, I suggest, is that it shows that some elements at or near the top of the Commission expect and even want the negotiations to fail, and are preparing the ground to blame UK intransigence for that outcome.

    The fact that the leak occurred should not be downplayed. The author speaks of ‘pearl clutching’, but any negotiation requires trust between the parties. Whoever leaked this story to the FAZ must have known it would create distrust. Contrary to the official assurances that the EU will seek a sensible agreement, then, the leakers must have intended to reduce the chances of such an agreement’s being concluded.

    There are indeed other signs that the EU is preparing the ground for an exit without agreement. Today’s news about Euro clearing is a case in point. No one really expected this to continue outside the EU in the long term, but what is new is the sense of urgency. Urgency is rational if you think it likely that the UK will crash out of the EU without an agreement in March 2019.

    All this is bad — certainly for the UK but also, in the longer run, for the EU. It may suit the ideologues of ‘ever closer union’ to make an example of the UK, but it is not in the interests of the people of Europe to have a humiliated and hostile power on its northwestern flank.

    1. «by EU leaks to a German newspaper»
      «any negotiation requires trust between the parties. Whoever leaked this story to the FAZ must have known it would create distrust»

      The vital detail that soon after the dinner Juncker phoned Merkel seems to indicate that the leak was from the english side, and the detail that Davis used the ECJ to beat May seems to indicate that the leak was not from May, unless it was put there precisely to mislead.
      The whole leak probably has painted the Conservative government as a bulldog for England from the viewpoint of many english “Leaver” voters.
      The vital difference between UK and EU is that Breexit is a big party electoral issue in the UK, but is not an electoral issue in the EU27, and indeed not even very much a political issue: mostly a technical issue for poor Barnier to suck up, and otherwise entertainment news like Berlescone.

  10. Is it more likely that a German business-oriented newspaper would be focused on trying to undermine Theresa May’s GE prospects, rather than signalling to its readers (German businesses) that they should be making contingency plans right now for dealing with British customers under WTO terms from 2020 – as this seems to be an increasingly probable outcome?

    1. The latter, of course. As you indicate, the chap above is seeing the world through a narrow English aperture.

  11. The issue seen from London is shock horror nasty Europeans ganging up on us or conspiracy this is Merkel or the commission trying to influence the U.K. Elections.

    Both are obvious nonsese, yes the other 27 will gang up against us that is the point we have left. 40 years of negotiating inside the EU with sometimes successfully building alliances does not work when you are outside as a third party.

    The polls in the U.K. are such that May is going to win easily, perhaps you would see interventions if there was a clear reverse Brexit party in the U.K. And it was doing well, but no such party exists, (unless you count the SNP).

    Money is a minor issue in the grand geostrategic position of Europe for the next 10-20 years, but it is a real issue if you are planning the 7 year budget of 2015-22 and U.K. Is planning to go in 19. Who is going to be asked to fill any gap the Germans.

    Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it, is good sound bite in the UK to the Daily Mail, but is a nonsese from an EU point of view, they simply do not have an interest in helping the UK make it a success. They are looking at boring detail of 40 years worth of mutual recognition of regulation and law and either we need to agree to carry on following it all or trade stops, but then what was the point in leaving.

    EMA and EBA are 2 examples were of course it is obvious they need to move, so there needs to be a process of where to, and then physically relocate the functions staff and potentially their families and have them up and running by March 2019. If UK wants to voluntarily still be monitored by them, or set up parallel agencies, put in place, employ staff etc it does not matter to EU but it does to UK. The perception is at that level of detail we are nowhere.

    1. The fact that the EU has no interest in helping the UK make a success of life post Brexit says a lot about the EU. The UK is the biggest market for EU goods, the major European contributor to NATO and a major security partner.

      The EU is beginning to look more and more like the Warsaw Pact dealing with a nation rejecting communism, concerned only with preserving its centralised bureaucracy at all costs, unable to tolerate a different model on its borders, using threats to maintain power rather than arguments, even if those costs are paid all in the EU as well as the UK.

  12. Firstly the EU elite appears to be approaching negotiations in bad faith. It wants Brexit to be a failure even if that is a worse outcome for the EU, a failed Brexit will seemingly paper over the cracks and act as an excuse to continue putting off much needed (but unwanted by the elite) reforms. Now, Brexit will probably be bad for the UK whatever happens, but the EU elite actively working against the UK out of principle would be the act of an enemy not a partner. I would much rather the UK had voted to remain (I did personally), but the EU elite have consistently taken conscious decisions to reject reforms and those decisions have contributed to current weaknesses. The EU elite’s current behaviour is only reinforcing the narrative of EU sclerosis, corruption and mendacity that fuelled Leave.

    Secondly, whilst there is much talk of the UK’s share of EU liabilities there isn’t enough emphasis being placed on the UK’s share of assets. It’s perfectly fine with me that the UK owns a part of the EU balance sheet, but it cannot be one side only. Legally binding principles needs to be defined here, if members only own liabilities who actually owns the assets? And what do such principles mean for all other organisations entering into legal agreements or relationships with the EU? In this instance it is the EU that seems to want to have its cake and eat it!

  13. I’m no lawyer but my guess about how a UK court would treat the issue of any payment on leaving is as follows:

    – the EU rules contain a rule for a state leaving, so the UK is doing something permitted by the rules. The article says “the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State”. So it doesn’t say the leaving state doesn’t have to pay anything but says it should be negotiated.

    – Each party should be reasonable. For the UK this means clear liabilities and debts should be paid (e.g. pensions, short-term payments etc) and some short-term payments may reasonably paid. For the EU it should compensate for any assets the UK leaves behind, and should make reasonable efforts to adjust further expenditure on the basis that the UK leaving is not behaving unreasonably (as the EU has a rule that says a nation can do that).

    I don’t know what the court would say about valuations and how they are arrived at.

    Cases like this don’t often reach the court, and are quite often agreed on the court steps, so I would expect an agreement to be made here on a similar basis as both parties want to get beyond this to the next part.

    But to state the obvious, this involves the EU and European countries typically have a lot more rules and regulations than the UK.

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