Rebels silenced as Theresa May wins cabinet backing for ‘soft Brexit’ plan

Eurosceptic ministers seem to have backed down after reports the prime minister threatened to sack anyone who stepped out of line

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 11:15am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 July, 2018, 6:55pm

British Prime Minister Theresa May stamped her authority on pro-Brexit cabinet rebels on Friday, forcing them to back her plan to keep close trade ties with the European Union after leaving.

The pound rose and the country’s main business lobby welcomed the proposal, which came as May warned ministers that if they criticise her policies in future they will lose their jobs.

It was enough to convince outspoken Brexit campaigners including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis to get in line.

After more than 12 hours of talks at May’s “Chequers” country residence, the cabinet signed off on a blueprint for the future relationship that Britain will seek to negotiate with the EU.

The meeting, which sprawled over lunch and dinner, produced a plan for a new UK-EU “free trade area”. It involves Britain weaving its customs regime around the bloc’s rules, and adopting identical regulations for industrial and agri-food goods.

There was no such design for close ties for Britain’s huge services sector, and London-based banks were warned they will lose their current levels of access to the EU market. New arrangements will seek to preserve the “mutual benefits of integrated markets”.

“Today in detailed discussions the cabinet has agreed our collective position for the future of our negotiations with the EU,” May said in a statement. “Now we must all move at pace to negotiate our proposal with the EU to deliver the prosperous and secure future all our people deserve.”

After weeks of speculation about cabinet resignations and leadership plots against her, the deal marks a significant milestone for May and for Brexit. The plan represents a closer relationship to the EU single market than many pro-Brexit campaigners hoped for when May first set out her plans in January last year. But none of the cabinet’s Brexit backers quit.

“Essentially it seems like May won, with some minor throwaway lines to placate the Brexiters,” said Sam Lowe, a senior researcher fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Eurosceptic lawmakers exchanged complaints on their WhatsApp group, with former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith saying: “I want to know what the Brexit cabinet ministers were doing.”

Another pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, Andrew Bridgen said: “This looks like a weak form of Brexit even before the EU negotiators weaken it further.”

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier welcomed the discussions on Twitter, saying he looks forward to the so-called white paper.

There is now a chance that the negotiations between Britain and the EU – which have been stalled for weeks – will be able to move forward toward concluding the divorce terms and mapping out the outline of a future trade deal by October.

“The EU will not go along with this, but I’m interested to see if they string it out so as to get the withdrawal agreement over the line,” Lowe said.

Despite her victory, May still faces some battles. First she must ensure that EU leaders at least agree to discuss her latest proposals and do not reject them out of hand. Then she will almost certainly face a backlash from Brexit true believers inside her Tory party in parliament, with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group likely to raise grave concerns over the proposals when May meets colleagues on Monday.

But Eurosceptic ministers such as Davis and Johnson seem to have backed down. In the run-up to the meeting, they were vocal in their concerns over May’s move towards a softer departure – particularly her plan for keeping EU rules on goods, and a close customs partnership, which Johnson described as “crazy”.

On Friday, both decided not to start a fight at Chequers. Davis gave a speech urging colleagues to get behind May, while Johnson raised a toast to the prime minister during dinner, people briefed on the encounter said.

Johnson raised some concerns in the afternoon, but was “pretty positive by the time we got to dinner”, according to one minister in the room. “Brexiteers meet reality and – to their credit – don’t run away,” the minister said.

May herself also changed gear on Friday. She sought to draw a line under the months of infighting and decisively put her foot down.

The Times reported that May is prepared to fire Johnson if he tries to undermine the peace deal. In a letter to Conservative lawmakers she wrote that while she has allowed cabinet colleagues to “express their individual views” in the past, that privilege is now revoked.

Tory Brexit campaigners were mainly silent on Friday but that is unlikely to last.

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