Can Mrs May bridge the gap?

Daily Express - - INSIDE POLITICS -

THERESA MAY has picked one of the most ro­man­tic spots in Italy to pop the ques­tion about a “deep and spe­cial re­la­tion­ship” be­tween Bri­tain and Europe next week. A short walk from the hall in Florence where the Prime Min­is­ter is to de­liver a key­note speech on Friday about the fu­ture for both af­ter Brexit, stands a me­dieval bridge that has drawn gen­er­a­tions of lovers. Court­ing cou­ples clamp pad­locks to the rail­ings on the Ponte Vec­chio in the hope of lock­ing their love to­gether for eter­nity.

Mrs May heads to the Tus­can cap­i­tal on Friday with di­vorce rather than mar­riage in mind. Yet se­nior Tories ex­pect that the Prime Min­is­ter wants to use her visit to talk about a strong and en­dur­ing bond be­tween the UK and the EU in the fu­ture rather than con­tinue the squab­bling about the past. Her Florence speech is tipped to be a sig­nif­i­cant mo­ment in the Brexit process.

The tim­ing of Mrs May’s speech, just over a week ahead of the Con­ser­va­tive con­fer­ence, sug­gests a de­sire to clar­ify the Govern­ment’s po­si­tion at this stage of the EU de­par­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions be­fore the Tories gather in Manch­ester.

Her aides do not want spec­u­la­tion about the talks to dom­i­nate the con­fer­ence and are keen to clear the way for the Prime Min­is­ter to con­cen­trate on set­ting out a rad­i­cal vi­sion for her do­mes­tic pol­icy pro­gramme in her clos­ing ad­dress to the party faith­ful.

And the choice of venue, in one of the six coun­tries that were founder mem­bers of the European bloc, sug­gests Mrs May wants next week’s Brexit to be heard and di­gested in the cap­i­tals of the 27 na­tions stay­ing in the EU af­ter Bri­tain leaves.

MPs ex­pect her speech to flesh out her plans for an “im­ple­men­ta­tion pe­riod” to smooth Bri­tain’s de­par­ture from the EU fol­low­ing the for­mal exit on March 29, 2019.

They be­lieve she will make clear Bri­tain is ready to con­tinue gen­er­ous pay­ments to the Brus­sels bud­get dur­ing those tran­si­tional years, eas­ing the panic among EU chiefs about a sud­den bud­get black hole.

Such an of­fer is likely to test the sup­port of the Brexit-back­ing Tory MPs who have re­mained loyal and helped to see off the jit­ters over the sum­mer about the Prime Min­is­ter’s lead­er­ship. Some se­nior back­benchers in their ranks would ide­ally like Mrs May to use her Tus­can trip to tell the EU’s ne­go­ti­at­ing team that Bri­tain has had enough of their mul­ish tac­tics and is pulling out of the talks with­out a deal. Tory Brex­i­teers sus­pect the Prime Min­is­ter’s mag­na­nim­ity may be wasted on EU chief ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier.

They sense the vet­eran EU di­plo­mat is more in­ter­ested in bur­nish­ing his fed­er­al­ist cre­den­tials for a pos­si­ble tilt at suc­ceed­ing the in­creas­ingly er­ratic Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Com­mis­sion pres­i­dent than in se­ri­ously get­ting down to business in the talks.

AS ONE se­nior Tory back­bencher said: “Barnier’s pos­tur­ing is be­com­ing in­suf­fer­able. We can­not put up with this in­def­i­nitely.” Many Euroscep­tic MPs be­lieve European Com­mis­sion ar­ro­gance could force the Govern­ment into de­liv­er­ing the com­plete break with Brus­sels with­out an exit deal that they see as the best out­come for Bri­tain.

Mrs May and her speech­writ­ers face a tricky task in fine-tun­ing the word­ing for next Friday’s Florence ad­dress. She will need to bal­ance the ex­pected “pos­i­tive” of­fer in her ef­fort to re-en­er­gise the stalled Brexit talks with sooth­ing the frus­tra­tions of Euroscep­tic back­benchers and min­is­ters.

Her sup­port­ers point out that Mrs May, un­like her re­cent Down­ing Street pre­de­ces­sors, rarely makes key­note speeches and does so only when she has some­thing cru­cial to say. In the spring, her ad­dress at Lan­caster House de­fined her vi­sion for a full Brexit with restor­ing bor­der con­trols as the top pri­or­ity. They be­lieve next Friday’s speech will be equally de­ci­sive in point­ing the way to­wards an exit deal.

No one is ex­pect­ing her to turn up in Florence starry-eyed like the lovers on the Ponte Vec­chio.

TROU­BLE AHEAD: Theresa May could of­fer con­tin­ued EU pay­ments in Florence but any deal might be wasted on Michel Barnier

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