Theresa May’s Brexit letter to Donald Tusk: what she said – and what she really meant

John Rentoul
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Theresa May’s Brexit letter to Donald Tusk: what she said – and what she really meant

What Theresa May said: The UK government’s policy remains to leave the European Union in an orderly manner on the basis of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration agreed in November, complemented by the joint instrument and supplement to the political declaration president Juncker and I agreed on 11 March.

And what she really meant: Very little of the government’s policy remains. There is almost nothing of it, or of my already diminished authority, left.

Please help me.

What she said: You will be aware that before the House of Commons rejected the deal for a second time on 12 March, I warned in a speech in Grimsby that the consequences of failing to endorse the deal were unpredictable and potentially deeply unpalatable. The House of Commons did not vote in favour of the deal.

What she meant: You know, Donald, what I am up against. You have some pretty odd MPs in your country. When you were prime minister of Poland you tried to reduce the size of parliament and got nowhere. You must help me.

(Downing Street/Reuters)

What she said: I had intended to bring the vote back to the House of Commons this week. The speaker of the House of Commons said on Monday that in order for a further meaningful vote to be brought back to the House of Commons, the agreement would have to be “fundamentally different – not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance”. Some members of parliament have interpreted that this means a further change to the deal. This position has made it impossible in practice to call a further vote in advance of the European Council.

What she meant: I had no chance of winning the vote this week, so I had already decided not to put it to the vote, but I was given a brilliant excuse by my worst enemy, John Bercow. I haven’t had much fun this week but I did enjoy sitting back at cabinet yesterday and just letting my colleagues vent about him. Makes a change from them having a go at me.

What she said: However, it remains my intention to bring the deal back to the house.

What she meant: I did not find the reference to the Black Knight, whose arms and legs are cut off and who says to his opponent, “Let’s call it a draw,” from Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, in the slightest bit amusing.

What she said: In advance of that vote, I would be grateful if the European Council could therefore approve the supplementary documents that President Juncker and I agreed in Strasbourg, putting the government in a position to bring these agreements to the house and confirming the changes to the government’s proposition to parliament.

What she meant: The Commons has already voted on my Brexit deal with those documents attached, but if EU leaders in Brussels tomorrow “approve” them, I can add that to the list of things I can attach to the deal as a way of persuading Enemy Bercow to let me have another vote.

What she said: I also intend to bring forward further domestic proposals that confirm my previous commitments to protect our internal market, given the concerns expressed about the backstop.

What she meant: My people are also working on another piece of paper designed to get the DUP on board. I can tack that on to the next vote on the deal too as a way of pretending it is “different in terms of substance”.

What she said: If the motion is passed, I am confident that parliament will proceed to ratify the deal constructively. But this will clearly not be completed before 29 March 2019. In our legal system, the government will need to take a bill through both houses of parliament to enact our commitments under the withdrawal agreement into domestic law. While we will consult with the opposition in the usual way to plan the passage of the bill as quickly and smoothly as possible, the timetable for this is inevitably uncertain at this stage. I am therefore writing to inform the European Council that the UK is seeking an extension to the Article 50 period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union ... until 30 June 2019.

What she meant: In Britain, the home of democracy, we have a wonderful uncodified constitution which protects the rights of our freeborn citizens under the benign gaze of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. It works smoothly like handcrafted clockwork and all continental Europeans, emerging from the yoke of autocracies, look upon us with envy. But on this occasion we would appreciate it if you could give me a little more time for one last attempt to save my job.

What she said: I would be grateful for the opportunity to set out this position to our colleagues on Thursday.

What she meant: Let me read this letter out while everyone is putting their coats on. Please?

What she said: Yours ever...

What she meant: Well, I say “ever”; at least until 30 June. If this isn’t sorted out by then, I’m off. Good luck dealing with Boris Johnson.