6 Jul 2018

Will the Brexiteers walk after crunch talks at Chequers?

The brutal message from a senior government source at the start of the Chequers gathering attacked “a select number of narcissistic leadership dominated cabinet ministers.” The message went on to specify that taxi numbers for Aston, the local mini cab company, would be in reception at Chequers if anyone decided to walk out, forgoing office and ministerial cars. Aston actually went out of business a while ago but the surviving local cab firm is run by a passionate pro-Remain boss who said she would happily drive any pro-Brexit minister out of government.

The senior government source shrugged off the idea of resignations saying there were other younger talents ready to fill their shoes and step up the ministerial ladder. The challenge might be maintaining the Brexit/Remain balance if the government had to do some serious re-engineering.

One visitor to the Prime Minister this week has suggested making Michael Gove the Brexit Secretary if David Davis were to walk away. Much hinges on the degree to which the cabal of Brexiteers meeting at the Foreign Office last night have a strictly co-ordinated and agreed position and whether they have their own red lines which cannot be crossed.

Pro-Remain Cabinet ministers last night insisted they’d been coordinating a bit as well but reckoned probably not as much as the Leavers. The biggest coordination effort visible has been the drum roll of big name manufacturers expressing their hostility to hard Brexit and/or more indecision and delay. One business who’d made outspoken remarks in the last two weeks said “spads” or government special advisers had urged them to beat the drum in the run up to the Chequers meeting.

 

The Chequers day has been organised meticulously to soften up ministers with a presentation on where the EU27 are (a long way away in negotiating terms) and their capacity for serious movement (not much). The ministers then, after lunch, and joined by about a dozen officials, were to discuss the U.K. negotiating position around the main table in the Grand Parlour room.

So will the Brexiteers walk? One of the questions they intend to pose in the discussion, I’m told, is what happens when the EU push back on this latest offer?

That certainly sounded like what Michel Barnier was signalling when he spoke this morning. He emphasised the freedoms of the EU could not be broken up. Mr Barnier (as @PMDFoster points out) pointedly raised the spectre of Britain maybe heading for a Canada style Free Trade Agreement after all. He threw the focus on how that would require a border down the Irish Sea in the full knowledge that such a thing sends a shiver through No 10. Soon after he spoke, Theresa May was expected to be deploying the argument to cabinet colleague that the union of the U.K. was potentially in peril and its maintenance was paramount

He knows that if there is a pretty convincing rejection of the plan by the EU27, there are two ways the U.K. could go at that point. Does the U.K. throw itself more fully into the EU institutions – the vassal state option as Brexiteers see it? Or does it decide to revive the Canada style Free Trade Agreement some Brexiteers always wanted but which the Treasury and No 10 have clearly set their heads against.

Talking to some pro-Brexit Cabinet ministers in recent weeks, you could already hear the logic churning in their head: the real battle comes in October or November when that battle is fully engaged. This is a preliminary battle. Better to stay at your post for the next real fight. Some say they intend to probe the PM today on what happens if the EU says “no” to the latest offer.

But some of the same ministers have gone into this meeting with counter advice from their closest aides ringing in their ears. Those arguments run that the Brexiteers in the Commons have the numbers to bring down Mrs May and a duty to stop the trick they suspect Mrs May and Olly Robbins are conniving in,  luring the Cabinet down a gravel drive that ends with you being drawn deeper and deeper into the EU house.

By October or November, the logic runs, people might feel it’s too late to change tack, options are thinner, time is short, let’s just go with the EU plan and ask them to help us disguise some of the most unpalatable elements. That danger, some ministers were told my old allies last night, must be avoided and the time to act is now.

Mrs May will want all ministers who stay in the government to commit whole-heartedly to her new strategy. If certain Brexiteers hang around though it won’t be because they’ve converted. They will have fingers crossed behind their backs as they swear allegiance thinking: even if we didn’t win today, we fight another day.

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