Our free and fearless press is without parallel when it comes to talking up lost causes, typical being their incessant promotion of the England football team before every World or European Cup ends in crushing disappointment. So it should have been no surprise to see the Daily Mail at it again yesterday, talking up the Brexit negotiations in Brussels.
Their “Whitehall source” gushed “This place is absolutely humming. Everyone is up for this. This whole department has spent months working flat out to get in the position we are now to start negotiations - and it has just gone up a gear … The atmosphere and the positivity, the whole place is upbeat. This notion that we’re in disarray is just not the truth. We’re looking forward very much to getting going on Monday. We have got a strong team. This idea that somehow we’re a shambolic outfit couldn’t be further from the truth”.
There was more. “You have got David Davis at the top of the department - a massively experienced parliamentarian, former businessman, knows his way around a deal, is a strong and canny operator. You have got Brexit permanent secretary Olly Robbins, a phenomenally experienced civil servant. You have got Sir Tim Barrow, one of the country’s foremost diplomats and negotiators”. Trowel it on a little more, perhaps?
You got it. “And that is just the top three, and beneath them you have got a tier that is the cream of Whitehall that is working on this … The department is up and running and is looking forward to getting going. We’re ready to go and looking forward to it”.
So how did yesterday actually play out? As if you need to ask: after all that talking up, what we got was the diplomatic equivalent of the team coming home after the group stages.
Even the Mail was forced to concede “the Brexit Secretary, who is leading the British negotiations, was forced to make a significant concession, agreeing to side-line talks on a trade deal … Mr Davis bowed to the pressure to put talks over a trade deal on hold, but insisted that a deal was achievable within the window for talks … Despite his positive assessment, Mr Davis faced embarrassment when the EU said it would decide when trade talks could begin”. Divorce bill before trade talks - as the EU said all along.
So Michel Barnier and his team calmly rolled Davis and his fellow brave Brits over in the opening minutes of the first half, while observers relayed the embarrassing climbdown.
Matthew Holehouse, now at MLex, noted “Barnier says UK and EU have agreed to two-phase exit - divorce then future relations”. No parallel trade talks, and the agenda as the EU had decided. Faisal Islam of Sky News added “The ‘row of the summer’ as suggested by DD one month ago, did not last even the first day of negotiations”. Davis had told anyone who would listen that he’d stand firm on this. He folded.
ITV’s Robert Peson concurred: “Pretty clear @DavidDavisMP and UK have caved on sequencing of talks, with trade now not being discussed till money, Ireland, migrants sorted”. Jack Blanchard of the Mirror pointed out “Here's David Davis telling @Peston on May 14th why he wouldn't be giving in to Barnier and negotiating the withdrawal before the trade deal”. And the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg added “No 10 originally believed they had France + Germany on board for a parallel process - EU has said no way”.
The old misapprehension - that somehow individual member states could be picked off, might be amenable to intervening on our behalf. They can’t, and they aren’t. Then, just to add to the humiliation, Michel Barnier left his foot in the tackle.
The Beeb’s Norman Smith broke the bad news: “It is not about revenge or punishment but do not underestimate consequences - Michel Barnier”. That is not especially subtle code for “You think today was bad - it’s going to get much, much worse”.
Even before these talks end, the Norwegian commentator’s words will be ringing in the right-wing, Europhobic press’ ears long and loud: Rupert Murdoch! Lord Rothermere! Rebekah Brooks! Trevor Kavanagh! Richard Littlejohn! Tony Parsons! Quentin Letts! Paul Dacre! Can you hear me Paul Dacre? YOUR BOYS TOOK A HELL OF A BEATING.