May and Juncker allies in furious row over latest Brexit leak

British prime minister reported to be ‘anxious and despondent’ at dinner with EU chief

British prime minister Theresa May is meeting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on October 16th. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

British prime minister Theresa May is meeting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on October 16th. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP

 

Top allies to Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May have engaged in a public clash over an account of a private Brussels dinner between the two leaders that portrayed the British prime minister as despondent over Brexit fights at home and begging for help from the EU.

Nick Timothy, Ms May’s former co-chief of staff, accused the European Commission president’s powerful chief of staff, Martin Selmayr, of leaking details of last week’s meeting to a German newspaper, saying it was symptomatic of EU efforts to derail Brexit negotiations.

“After constructive [European] Council meeting, Selmayr does this,” Mr Timothy wrote on Twitter. “Reminder that some in Brussels want no deal or a punitive one.”

Mr Selmayr denied leaking the account to Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, saying Brussels was not “punitive on Brexit” and insisting Mr Juncker never characterised Ms May as beleaguered or pleading for assistance.

“This is false,” Mr Selmayr replied on Twitter. “I know it doesn’t fit your cliché, @NickJTimothy. But @JunckerEU & I have no interest in weakening PM.”

The FAZ report claimed an exhausted-looking Ms May feared being toppled by enemies at home, that she had no room for manoeuvre and told Mr Juncker she was desperate for help from the European side of the Brexit negotiations.

Mr Selmayr was blamed for a similarly damaging leak to FAZ after he met with Ms May for a Downing Street dinner in April.

In the account of the most recent dinner, Ms May was said to have “begged for help”, and seemed “anxious” and “tormented” as well as “despondent and discouraged”.

The dinner last Monday was arranged at the last minute, according to the account, in spite of Downing Street’s insistence it had been in the diary for weeks as part of preparations for last week’s Brussels summit.

“Juncker found her anxious, despondent and disheartened. A woman who barely trusts anyone but also is unable to make a clean break,” reads the account, which is largely written from Mr Juncker’s perspective.

“May’s facial expression and her demeanour spoke volumes. That’s the way Juncker later described her to his colleagues. Everyone can see: the prime minister is marked by the struggle with her own party. She has deep rings under her eyes. She looks like someone who doesn’t sleep at night.”

Chaotic Brexit

The account is unlikely to bolster trust between Ms May, who on Monday reports back to MPs on last week’s EU summit, and Mr Juncker’s team.

Last week’s summit saw the leaders of the remaining 27 EU countries agree to begin discussions among themselves over a future trade deal with the UK and a transitional agreement, while saying Britain must put more money on the table to move formal negotiations to the next phase.

The FAZ report said that European leaders made the limited concession to Ms May because they calculated it was “better to negotiate with a realist than a dreamer like [Boris] Johnson”.

The report also cited an unnamed diplomat as saying Ms May must explain to her people why the costs of a chaotic Brexit would be so much higher than the bill Brussels was presenting her with. It added: “So every piece of bad news about Brexit is good for her right now.”

In April the same German newspaper carried a detailed account of a Downing Street dinner after which Mr Juncker was said to have concluded that Ms May was living “in another galaxy”.

Mr Selmayr was blamed by Number 10 for that leak, amid a strongly held view in London that the powerful chief of staff is anti-British.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017