A sudden row has flared up over the apparent suggestion of the former Tory leader Lord Howard that Theresa May would be prepared to go to war over Gibraltar.
The prime minister has vowed not to compromise on the Rock’s sovereignty after the European Union raised the matter in draft EU negotiating deadlines.
This indicated that Madrid would get a veto over whether or not a trade deal would apply to the tiny British territory, which is sandwiched between Spain and the Mediterranean.
Lord Howard said that it was interesting that the EU was saying this 35 years after a UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, had dispatched a task force to defend the Falkland Islands. When pressed if he was suggesting the UK go to war with Spain, he said of course not. Nonetheless, there has been an outcry against Lord Howard. But the former Conservative leader was quite right to speak as he did.
He has been accused of inflammatory talk but it is the EU that has done that. It has needlessly opened a divisive issue before Brexit negotiations have even begun.
If implicitly threatening remarks set the tone for those talks, we see how right Mrs May was to make clear to Brussels that no deal was better than a bad one with the EU. The 27 other nations must know that the UK will not be bullied.
It was important that Mrs May reiterated “steadfast” support for Gibraltar, where 99% of the residents want to be British. She said the UK would never pass sovereignty to another state against their wishes. She has been similarly robust about Northern Ireland, and her ministers have explicitly ruled out joint authority here. Any such concession over Gibraltar or Northern Ireland or indeed the Falklands would be a grievous betrayal of those three places.
Spain’s conduct over Gibraltar has been mischievous in recent decades, at times overtly antagonistic. Mrs May is talking the way we hope a UK leader would in the circumstances.