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Why leaving the EU feels exactly like staying in the EU

Theresa May's actions in Brussels suggest damage limitation. Credit: PA

It is a bad joke that our leaving of the EU is utterly of a piece with the decades of our membership - as a British PM urges her fellow government heads to give her a deal that doesn’t humiliate her in her own party or in the wider country.

Brexit wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it?

We were told it would be Independence Day, to coin Farage’s rallying cry - not yet more humiliating sessions of begging the EU’s indulgence, in this case to be gentle with us when it comes to settling our bill and generous in allowing talks on our future trading relationship to start soon enough for them to be more than a fig leaf.

What we witnessed overnight Thursday was the magnificent eccentricity of the Tory party having picked as its leader and our PM someone whose heart isn’t really in Brexit - and who therefore measures any possible leaving agreements with the EU on the basis of damage limitation, not by what Johnson and Gove would see as the joyous liberation from shackles.

Theresa May's pitch to EU leaders appears at odds with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove's Brexit vision. Credit: PA

For Theresa May personally and for her party this is not a good look.

It sends a strong signal both that she has been taken hostage by the Brexiteering true believers in her own party, who would rather see a Corbyn government than compromise on the terms of Brexit beyond a certain point, and that she herself does not share their faith that all Brexits are good Brexits.

So the very serious risk for her today is she returns home waving a bit of paper which implies that talks on our future trading and security relationship with the EU, and on a transition period to the reality of that relationship, will start at the end of the year - but will have reinforced the fear among those who fought and won the Brexit vote that she does not sufficiently believe in their project to make the definitive break with the EU that matters more to some of them than life itself (well, almost).

To use the cliché of our age, these Brexit talks at the EU council are as “existential” for her as they are for the country.