Britain will not send naval forces to defend Gibraltar, Downing Street said on Monday, as a dispute with the European Union about the future of the overseas territory escalated.
But Theresa May's official spokesperson did not distance the government from startling comments by the former Conservative leader Michael Howard in which he compared the diplomatic row to Margaret Thatcher going to war with Argentina to defend the Falklands in 1982.
Asked by journalists whether the UK would be prepared to send a naval task force to protect Gibraltar's sovereignty, the Number 10 official said: "We're perfectly clear that isn't going to happen."
But although they dismissed the prospect of the military becoming involved, the spokesperson was prepared to go only so far to dampen the incendiary dispute. Asked several times whether the prime minister was unhappy at Lord Howard's intervention, or whether May believed all sides needed to calm down, they would not.
"We remain steadfast in our support for Gibraltar," the spokesperson said several times, when pressed by journalists.
Earlier on Monday morning, Spain's foreign minister Alfonso Dastis said he was surprised by the reaction in the UK and urged British politicians to calm down.
"The Spanish government is a little surprised by the tone of comments coming out of Britain, a country known for its composure," Dastis said, according to Reuters.
David Davis, the UK's Brexit secretary, met Dastis and other Spanish government officials in Madrid on Monday morning.
The visit was already scheduled before the Gibraltar dispute erupted. "These meetings have been planned for a number of weeks, I would stress," Number 10's official spokesperson said.
Davis is in Spain and Portugal over the next few days discussing Brexit and other matters. He discussed Gibraltar with Dastis this morning, the spokesperson said, and "echoed what the prime minister has already made clear, in terms of our legal position around Gibraltar and the fact that we will be steadfast in our support for Gibraltar."
Asked again about Howard's remarks, the spokesperson added: "What Lord Howard was trying to establish was the resolve that we will have to protect the rights of Gibraltar and its sovereignty.
"We've been very clear that we will support fully Gibraltar's rights to sovereignty."
Downing Street would not comment on whether the government is lobbying the EU to remove the clause about Gibraltar from its Brexit negotiating guidelines, or whether she accepts Spain will have to agree any terms relating to Gibraltar.
"These are draft guidelines. We'll wait and see what comes back when the [final] guidelines are issued," the Number 10 spokesperson said.
The comments were greeted with bafflement by some residents of Gibraltar, such as Paul Cartwright, who along with British businesswoman Gina Miller, successfully brought a legal challenge agains the UK government which forced Theresa May to give parliament a vote on invoking Article 50.
"It’s not a laughing matter," he told BuzzFeed News, insisting he would not be attempting any more legal challenges over Gibraltar's EU status. "Right now it would be counterproductive for Gibraltar to do anything right now. This is not Scotland - we’re not surrounded by oil, this is a small nation with 30,000 locals. We have been living with the Spanish for many years, no matter how British we are we are depend on the SpanishHe said he was concerned that the UK could side with Spain in order to protect the rights of the large numbers of British citizens living in the country.
"Above all we need solidarity with all UK nationals," Cartwright. "Although we voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU, that was because we know of the consequences it will bring us with Spain. Above all, we’d rather stay British with a closed border than have an open border with dual nationality."
The dispute about Gibraltar blew up on Friday, when the European Council set out its priorities for the forthcoming negotiations about Britain's withdrawal from the EU. Under its guidelines, Spain would effectively be given a veto over how any EU-UK trade deal affects Gibraltar.
That prompted a fierce reaction from the government of Gibraltar, which fervently wants to remain part of the UK, and senior Conservatives, who argued that the territory shouldn't be used as a bargaining chip in the Brexit talks.
Speaking to Sky News on Sunday, Lord Howard said: "Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a task force halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country. And I'm absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar."
Alex Spence is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alex Spence at email@example.com.
Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Jim Waterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.