Though the context of a note carried by a Tory aide in Downing St yesterday is unclear, it suggests the government still has little clue what to do about Brexit. It rams home the need for Theresa May to produce a proper plan before we enter the most important peace-time negotiations since World War Two but also raises doubts that she will be able to do so.

Here are some of the cryptic comments on the notepad.

Transitional – loath to do it. Whitehall will hold onto it. We need to bring an end to the negotiation.

We think it’s unlikely we’ll be offered single market.

Manufacturing relatively straightforward. Services harder – because French hoping for business

What’s the model? Have cake & eat it.

One interpretation of these scribblings is that the government is loath to cut a transitional deal to stop the economy falling off a cliff at the end of the Brexit negotiations and still hopes to finalise a long-term trade deal in the available two-year timetable despite civil servants saying otherwise; that it knows it won’t be able to stay in the single market and that this will create particular problems for our services industries; but that it still somehow hopes to have its cake and eat it, as Boris Johnson is fond of saying.

The handwritten note was carried by an aide to Mark Field MP, a Tory vice-chairman, after a meeting at the Brexit Department in 9 Downing Street. A government spokesperson is quoted by the Guardian as saying: “These individual notes do not belong to a government official or a special adviser. They do not reflect the government’s position in relation to Brexit negotiations.”

Be that as it may, people are paying attention to the note because May is playing her Brexit cards incredibly close to her chest. That, in turn, may be because she doesn’t have many cards to play.

The latest sign of our weak negotiating position comes in this article stating that Angela Merkel has rebuffed a request by May for assurances that Britons living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK would keep their rights after Brexit. The report suggests the German chancellor is taking a hard line on the negotiations.

The Germans, it says, “are convinced that Britain will only negotiate realistically once the weakness of its hand has sunk in with the Conservative leadership and pro-Brexit voters, many of whom maintain that Europe needs the UK as much as the UK needs the EU, and seem to believe that Britain can continue to enjoy the key benefits of the single market without the constraints.”

No wonder May is struggling to come up with a proper plan. But this is no excuse for trying to figure things out by herself with a small coterie of advisers while leaving MPs and voters to guess what is happening from the tidbits her government deliberately reveals or accidentally lets slip.

by Hugo Dixon | 29.11.2016

Hugo Dixon is co-founder of CommonGround as well as editor-in-chief of InFacts. 

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