25 Sep 2018

Theresa May doggedly works through the Brexit puzzle

Theresa May has landed in New York for a two-day visit to the United Nations. It’s an opportunity to rub shoulders with fellow leaders from across the continents and the Prime Minister, speaking to journalists on the RAF Voyager plane, seemed buoyant at the prospect.

The Prime Minister yesterday told the cabinet that the Chequers plan is still the government’s policy. The threatened cabinet uprising to force the Prime Minister to change tack and shift to something more like a Canadian-style free trade agreement didn’t materialise. Speaking on the plane to New York, the Prime Minister sounded like someone who would not adopt their plan under any circumstances. Mrs May’s attack
on the deficiencies of a free trade agreement approach sounded pretty rigid.

The Prime Minister was asked if a “Canada +” agreement would be better or worse than “no deal” and indicated it would be worse. It would, she argued, be bad for the British economy and would break up the U.K. She will be hoping that the argument that she is defending the Union of the United Kingdom will go some way to assuage critics at the Tory Conference which starts on Sunday. Some of her internal critics will say she is rolling over unnecessarily on the border issue and the EU should be stared down and dared to put up border controls. Others will claim the ERG has produced solutions that knock out the need for any border checks.

Mrs May said the Common Rule Book approach enshrined in Chequers, following the EU’s Single Market rules and regulations on goods, wouldn’t hamper trade deals as you could see from the fact that the EU collectively manages trade agreements with third party countries.

But what happens if her plan somehow gets up off the Salzburg floor, is agreed with the EU in some form and then defeated in the House of Commons?

Plenty of Tory MPs claim they’ve heard people from No 10 talk of a possible general election if there is deadlock in the Commons. A second referendum is something the PM has categorically turned down. If she’s not willing to change tack to another approach, what happens then?

Has any definitive decision really been made ruling out options given the crisis that the country would be in post Commons defeat?

The Prime Minister is proud of her methodical approach, focusing on the end destination and working through problems to get there. On flights, aides say, she occasionally relaxes with Sudoku puzzles. While some of her colleagues in the Tory Party come with broad approaches, ideologies in some cases, Mrs May doggedly works through the puzzle. She must know there’s a monster Bank Holiday special full page Sudoku only a few pages away and there will be a time limit and huge stakes to finish it.

Yesterday the Cabinet achieved “high level” accord on the immigration white paper plans. Skills will trump country of origin in the overall plan. The Migration Advisory Committee report published last week called for exemptions only in the case of low skilled agricultural workers. Some briefings today suggest that has already been expanded (depended on who you listen to) to construction, social care, food processing and others. Sources suggest that may be pre-emptive briefing ahead of crunch decision-taking meetings that haven’t happened yet.

Would that stance on immigration change if there was a demand for that in detailed trade negotiations with the EU? You can’t rule that out, sources say.

Another Whitehall source said the Treasury and the Chancellor himself had grown “more relaxed” about a non-preferential immigration policy that lowers access to stay for EU citizens. One source said this was because EU leaders had “priced in” a tightening of U.K. immigration policy given what had happened in the referendum. “Their main worry,” one Whitehall official said, “is you shouldn’t discriminate between EU states.”

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