May plans Brexit walkout to 'look tough'
A senior figure from inside Theresa May's cabinet has told business UK leaders that the underfire British prime minister could storm out of Brexit talks with European officials over the size of the "divorce bill".
The senior Downing Street figure briefed industry and City bosses to prepare for the prime minister walking away from negotiations in September.
The move would be designed for "domestic consumption" to try to show Mrs May playing tough over the €100bn some EU figures want the UK to pay before leaving the European Union.
The briefing took place at a point after the general election was held last month and the figure has since left in the recent overhaul of Downing Street.
Business leaders were told that while no final decision had been taken on walking out of talks, it was a distinct possibility.
"I do think we are looking to be seen as hard-nosed, as hard-headed and as cold-eyed about this as it is possible to be," said a source familiar with Number 10's thinking.
"If any of those actions take place it will be to work towards a single objective - getting the best deal that we can."
The comments have been seen as an attempt to limit the backlash from markets if negotiations over how much Britain owes turn sour later this year. UK cabinet members are still haunted by Mrs May's speech at the Tory conference last October when the pound nosedived immediately on hearing her outline her plan for Brexit.
However, the move would likely be seen as deliberately provocative by EU leaders, given both sides have called for a cordial approach to talks.
It reflects the political difficulty May faces in explaining to the British public why the UK may have to pay tens of billions of pounds to leave the European Union. Some polls have suggested that voters are vehemently against paying large sums to Brussels - yet UK officials are increasingly resigned to the fact that they will have to pay the money that they had agreed to pay before the Brexit vote took place.
The move echoes the advice given by Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign designer, to David Cameron when he was renegotiating Britain's EU membership before the referendum. The then prime minister was reportedly advised by Crosby to play tough and walk away from talks in order to get a better deal from Brussels. Cameron declined to play Crosby's game - and was later criticised for failing to win enough promises of reform from Europe, which in turn sealed his future in the Brexit vote.
A working group between the UK and EU is being set up in the coming weeks to negotiate the so-called "Brexit bill". Estimates from Brussels range from €40bn to €100bn. A Number 10 source last night played down the idea of a walkout, saying: "This suggestion has no part in our plans."
The revelation comes as the UK takes another formal step towards Brexit as it tells EU allies it will leave the London Fisheries Convention.
The move, to be triggered tomorrow, will let the UK regain control of waters up to 12 miles from its coast in a major boost to British fishermen.
EU countries currently catch an estimated 10,000 tonnes of fish in those waters every year. Any access after Brexit will form part of negotiations.
Britain will formally leave the London Fisheries Convention exactly two years from tomorrow. The agreement is separate from the EU Common Fisheries Policy, which controls access to British waters between 12 and 200 miles from the coast and will be discussed during negotiations.