After the DUP took issue with government’s handling of the Irish border question on Monday, Theresa May had to return home from her lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker empty-handed. What’s more, there’s no indication that a solution is in sight anytime soon. The DUP worry that the wording in the draft text – promising regulatory alignment in relation to the Good Friday agreement – could see Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the UK – and result in an Irish sea border. Meanwhile, some Brexiteers worry that agreeing regulatory alignment between the UK and Ireland could mean an end to the clean Brexit they envisaged.
So, one could be forgiven for thinking Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting must have been a tense affair. Instead, Coffee House understands it was rather muted. Only a handful of Cabinet ministers spoke – with the majority making the point that the integrity of the United Kingdom must not be compromised – meaning any regulatory alignment in Northern Ireland would have to be replicated in the rest of the UK.
It fell to the Foreign Secretary to raise concern over the implications of agreeing to this kind of alignment which could have big consequences for divergence and subsequently the type of free-trading nation Britain could be after Brexit. Ministers were very struck that Michael Gove – Johnson’s supposed Vote Leave ally – did not chip in or back Johnson up. Instead, the Defra Secretary remained silent.
Given that the Cabinet is yet to discuss what the Brexit end state will look like (whether it will be convergence or one where the UK diverges from the EU), it may be that most Eurosceptic ministers wish to keep their powder dry for now. Even so, however, there is a growing feeling in Cabinet that Gove is proving more pragmatic over Brexit than Johnson. Although the pair have been seen to be in cahoots (sending May a joint so-called Brexit demands letter), the Foreign Secretary is much more impatient about Brexit concessions than Gove. It’s no coincidence then that Gove is also proving the more popular with his colleagues.