Ian Swanson: EU hold all the cards and Mrs May will soon be gone

David Davis, right, in talks with the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Picture: AP
David Davis, right, in talks with the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Picture: AP
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THE Brexit talks have begun – but instead of the UK’s hand being strengthened by a general election mandate, David Davis had to start by giving in on the first point of contention, the EU’s preferred timetable for negotiations.

The concession by the Brexit Secretary – which means a trade deal must wait until the “divorce bill” has been agreed, a sequencing Mr Davis had previously billed as “the row of the summer” – is symbolic of the position in which the UK government now finds itself.

Just two months ago, Theresa May seemed to be on the verge of a landslide victory which could establish the Tories in permanent power for the foreseeable future, while humiliating Jeremy Corbyn and leaving the Labour Party in doubt about its survival.

Announcing the election from that lectern in Downing Street, she posed as a politician about to cement her position in power, if not her place in history.

But today Mrs May is a Prime Minister living on borrowed time. Her encounter with the electorate did not go well. She misjudged the mood, dodged debate and failed to convince.

The much-derided Mr Corbyn emerged from the election a more human figure, with a more appealing set of policies and more passionate about what he was proposing.

Events since June 8 have reinforced the impressions of the campaign. Mrs May has shown little willingness to accept the voters’ verdict or change her ways.

Her public comments after the election had the same robotic feel as during the campaign. She barely acknowledged that anything had changed.

Her initial failure to meet victims of the horrendous Grenfell Tower fire looked totally unresponsive in the face of raw human suffering, while Mr Corbyn seemed naturally empathetic as he comforted those whose lives had been devastated by the tragedy.

One admirer of Mrs May conceded she was perhaps a politician “for a different era”. The only reason she is still in office is that her party – reliably ruthless in dealing with ­losers – fears a change in leader would mean another general election, which Labour could win.

Nevertheless, she will be deposed sooner or later. And if she continues to show the same lack of touch which characterised the election campaign her departure cannot be long delayed.

Mrs May is still trying to hammer out a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to help keep her in power.

The DUP will want increased spending for Northern Ireland, which should spark immediate questions about why Scotland cannot have a similar economic boost.

But the Unionists are also keen to ensure no hard border with the south of Ireland, which could affect the kind of Brexit deal which is negotiated by Mr Davis.

Politicians from ex-Chancellor George Osborne to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon have said there is now no parliamentary majority for the hard Brexit Mrs May has advocated. And Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson wants an “open” Brexit.

Whether it’s days, weeks or months, Mrs May’s time as Prime Minister will soon be over.

But in the meantime, the rejection of her plea for the public to back her stance on Brexit gives other parties an opportunity to press for a different kind of deal to help shape the future.