Will Brexit talks deliver a harsh lesson to Theresa May and her wounded government?

British ministers are still aiming for a tailor-made deal providing as many benefits of membership with as few responsibilities as possible

Boris Johnson, Britain's foreign minister, is one of the most recognisable politicians in the world.

 Glyn Kirk / AFP
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The journalist and wit Ambrose Bierce said that war was God’s way of teaching Americans geography. A similar process is going on as Britain sets about leaving the European Union after 44 years of membership.

The geography of the continent may be more familiar to Britons than Vietnam or Iraq were to Americans, but British politicians are getting a harsh lesson in how the European Union works, a lesson that may be no less traumatic than the ones learned by America in the foreign wars it lost.

The great enigma for continental Europeans is how it has come about that the famously pragmatic British are set on a course to abandon the market on their doorstep in favour of an uncertain future that is bound in the short term to lead to serial humiliation and economic distress.

For the famously cautious and scientifically-minded German chancellor, Angela Merkel, it is inexplicable that Britain held a referendum on leaving the EU last year without anyone having any idea of what life outside the bloc would look like.

More than a year after the referendum, these questions are unanswered, except that British ministers are still aiming for a tailor-made deal providing as many benefits of membership with as few responsibilities as possible. That, of course, is not on offer. But having lived in cloud cuckoo land for so long, the weak and divided government of Theresa May has no ladder to climb down to earth on.

Many of the most hardline Brexiters – those who campaigned to leave the EU – fervently believed that the EU is a crumbling edifice and that Brexit would remove the brick that sent it crashing down. In fact, the opposite has happened.

The EU has found a new lease on life, with Emmanuel Macron finding a formula that magically combines his goals of reviving the French economy with deepening the European project. Mr Macron has now usurped Britain’s place as close ally of America by making a big show of friendship with Donald Trump, whatever he may think of the US president in private.

In Brussels, the European negotiating team has rallied the 27 member states (all bar the UK) behind a clear agenda to exact a high price for exit.

In London, Mrs May, having lost her majority at the recent general election, is not in control of parliament nor of her cabinet, which is riven by rival claimants for her seat, nor of the UK’s devolved governments in Scotland and Wales which all want a say in the negotiations. Nor, at a time when the destiny of the country is in the balance, does she have any support from the opposition Labour Party.

So how has this come about?

There are some similarities between Britain and America, which have seen themselves as top dogs since 1945 (even though there has actually been only one alpha canine). With the Anglo-American ascendancy challenged by rising powers and globalisation, there is a shared desire across the Atlantic to kick the foreigner – by “taking back control” from the supposedly over-mighty Europeans and by “America First” in the US. Sentiment has gone the other way in France and Germany, where revulsion at the Trump spectacle has driven voters to rally round European liberal values.

Just as the Republican party was hijacked in the campaign by Mr Trump so the Conservatives in Britain have become an overwhelmingly Eurosceptic party, where members believe that “Brussels” is responsible for all the country’s ills. This is a sign of a wider trend where traditional parties have lost contact with ordinary people – especially the old working class – and accepted that there is no alternative to globalised financial capitalism.

Having lost touch with ordinary folk, the Conservatives have embraced the tabloid press as the voice of the people. For newspapers the choice is clear: while they can bring the UK government to heel from time to time, they have zero influence in Brussels, where they are viewed as a noxious bacterium, so their interest is to bring as much power as possible back to London.

This tabloid romance has created a unique buccaneering form of British politician. The exemplar is Boris Johnson, the current foreign secretary who is devoting his energies to replacing Mrs May when she inevitably has to quit. His confected persona of naughty schoolboy makes him one of the most recognisable politicians in the world.

The man in charge of negotiating Brexit is David Davis, also more of a pirate than a plodder, though in his favour it must be said he is not a product of Eton and Oxford but a self-made businessman. They spend more time back-slapping than reading their briefing papers and take pride in their ability to get out of the resulting scrapes.

Contrast this with the European bureaucracy, motivated by a clear idea of where the bloc should go, and with decades of experience in negotiating minutiae and keeping the member states on the same page.

Britain’s tradition is of hectic improvisation rather than clear planning. In the past foreigners have borne the brunt: the examples of the partition of India and Palestine in 1947 come to mind. Luckily when the homeland is at risk, the Americans could be relied on to come to the rescue.

Against all this is the undeniable fact that Britain’s history is dramatically different from most of the continental European countries. All the European belligerents in the Second World War apart from Britain suffered invasion, occupation or defeat. These brutal lessons – not so easily eradicated from memory as losing a foreign war – have left a deep imprint on their politics, that disaster awaits those who fail to keep their neighbours close.

Having had no such near-death experience in war, Britain has a different politics, more insouciant and prone to believe that all will come good in the end for the plucky island nation. Perhaps that harsh lesson is just around the corner.