Theresa May has formally launched her election campaign with an attack on “European politicians and officials”, whom she accused of threatening Britain and trying to sabotage her attempt to win re-election.
Standing on the steps of Number 10, Mrs May set out to inflame Brexit tensions, claiming that events of recent days showed that “there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed”.
Mrs May accused some in the EU of wanting to weaken the UK, creating the impression of a country under economic attack and where only she offered the calibre of leadership needed to “fight for Britain”.
“In the last few days we have seen how tough these talks are likely to be,” Mrs May said, shortly after an audience with the Queen at Buckingham Palace that marked the dissolution of parliament.
“Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press, the European Commission’s stance has hardened and threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials.
“All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election that will take place on June 8.”
Mrs May’s allies said she was specifically referring to an unflattering leaked account of a “disastrous” private dinner with EU officials at Number 10 last week, details of which were passed to the German press.
The prime minister blames Martin Selmayr, the influential chief of staff to Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, for the leak to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, which suggested Mrs May was living “in another galaxy”.
Mrs May was also said by allies to be responding to reports in the Financial Times that Germany, France and Poland were pressing for Britain’s gross bill to be paid on leaving the EU to be more than €100bn.
However, Mrs May’s aides were unable immediately to identify the European politicians or officials who have allegedly threatened Britain in recent days, amid suggestions she was building up the row to her own advantage.
Although Mrs May accused some in Brussels of trying to “affect the result” of the election, the Conservative leader has deliberately drawn attention to the incident to bolster her claim to be a strong leader at a time of national danger.
“There are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed, who do not want Britain to prosper,” she said, again without identifying whom she meant. But she added: “This Brexit negotiation is central to everything.”
Although the pound dropped following her statement, the fall was modest. Sterling was 0.25 per cent lower on the day at just above $1.29.
Earlier on Wednesday Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, set out a hardline opening position after the Financial Times calculated that the UK’s gross bill for exiting the union could be as much as €100bn, suggesting the divorce could be painful and time-consuming.
Forex analysts said investors were becoming more phlegmatic about Brexit rhetoric because the risk of a disorderly exit had been reduced by the snap election and the prospect of a larger Conservative majority. But Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, called Mrs May’s approach “deeply irresponsible”.
The European Commission refused to comment on Mrs May’s remarks and Mr Selmayr has declined to comment.
On Tuesday Mrs May said that Mr Juncker would soon find out that she was a “bloody difficult woman”.
However, the European Commission president for his part sought to repair relations.
“I deeply respect the British prime minister, I like her as a person,” Mr Juncker told reporters in Brussels. “I have noted that she is a tough lady.”
Additional reporting by Duncan Robinson and Roger Blitz