Theresa May was in her customary position around the table in Brussels.
Alone. She sat with her shoulders slumped, trying to catch the eye of the four pot plants in front of her. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, she said: “How do you think that went?”
“Could have been worse,” replied Pot Plant One. “At least the EU have agreed to hold talks about holding talks to advance the negotiations sometime after Christmas.”
“I suppose so,” said Theresa glumly. “But we’re still nowhere near where I hoped we’d be by now. Even if we do move on to the next stage, how the hell are we going to complete the trade talks in just eight months. It’s taken us the best part of six months to decide how to split the restaurant bill.”
“Look on the bright side,” Pot Plant Two interrupted, trying to cheer the British prime minister up. “At least no one was actively nasty towards you this time round ... ”
“They just feel sorry for you,” Pot Plant Three chipped in, not altogether helpfully. “They know you’re fairly useless and they’re just worried they might end up having to deal with someone even worse if you get the push.”
Pot Plant Four drew the conversation to a close. The planned restorative confidence booster was backfiring badly. “You’re already half an hour late for your press conference,” it observed. “You can’t just ignore the media and hope they go away. Just go out there, say something short and meaningless and then you can nip home and put your feet up for the weekend.”
For the first time in a few days, Theresa perked up a bit. Short and meaningless she could do. In fact, short and meaningless was all she could do. She dragged herself out of the chair and headed towards the media centre. “Thanks pot plants,” she said on the way out. “You’ve been great.”
“Christ, she’s hard work, isn’t she?” said Pot Plant One. The three others rustled their leaves in agreement.
The prime minister walked briskly to the lectern and began talking. The EU council meeting had been a massive success because it hadn’t been a massive failure. The UK still really, really valued everything the EU had to offer. Though not enough to want to stay in it. The thing was that the EU was just too good for us. We weren’t worthy enough to remain a member. Everything was going great apart from the bits that were tricky but she hoped that someone would be able to come up with a constructive and professional solution. That excluded David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox.
A few reporters tried to stifle their yawns. They’d heard all this dozens of times before. It was like a broken record. Stuck in the Maybot groove. Theresa raced to the finish. A deal over EU nationals was in sight, no one had a clue how to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland if the UK left the customs union and as for the financial commitments ... Her voice tailed away and died mid-sentence. She never did get round to detailing what, if any, financial settlement had been reached.
As Theresa had feared, it was only the money that the media were interested in. Had she privately reassured the other EU leaders that the UK would be prepared to pay a lot more than the £20bn that was already on the table? A look of panic crossed her face. Of course she had! Why else had everyone been a little bit nicer? But she couldn’t say so because otherwise all the Tory Brexit headbangers would go nuts.
As always when in trouble, she began to talk pure Maybot.
“I have been clear that I have said what I have said,” she said. She would be thinking about the financial commitments at such a time when thinking about financial commitments was necessary.
If the Brexit secretary was talking up a no deal scenario, shouldn’t businesses be seriously preparing for one also? No. She had been very clear that she was aiming for a good deal that might turn out to be no deal. It was too early to say.
When she went through the financial commitments line by line was it possible the UK would end up paying £60bn? “I have been very clear about the process of going through the process line by line,” she muttered. English was now not even her second language.
Even though she had managed to keep the entire press conference down to barely 15 minutes, Theresa could sense it was all beginning to fall apart. She became shifty and defensive and cut it short by taking a question from the one member of the audience who wasn’t interested in Brexit. What did she think about Catalonia?
The prime minister relaxed. She didn’t really care that much about Catalonia one way or the other. She had enough problems of her own. “I am clear that the British position is very clear,” she garbled, making a dash for the exit. She had got out of Brussels with some traces of her self-respect intact. Under the circumstances, that was a result.
This article was written by John Crace, for theguardian.com on Friday 20th October 2017 13.29 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010