Today the Cabinet finally held its first discussion on what type of relationship the UK should have with the EU post-Brexit. The reason the discussion had been put off for so long is that it is potentially a toxic one – with strong feelings on both sides of the debate.
In recent weeks (or months, if you’re a regular Coffee House Shots listener) the two tribes in Cabinet have come to be known as the divergers and the aligners. The first camp – composed of the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Gavin Williamson – think it’s vital that Britain is able to diverge from EU regulations in any trade deal. Meanwhile the aligners – comprised of figures such as Amber Rudd and Greg Clark – believe Britain ought to stay closely aligned to EU regulation in order to guarantee maximum market access.
The Prime Minister attempted to appeal to both sides at Cabinet today. She insisted that Britain would seek a bespoke deal – one that would allow for alignment in some areas and divergence in others. She reiterated her claim in her Lancaster House speech that the off the shelf European Economic Area model is not right for Britain as it would be democratically unsustainable given the reasons people voted for Brexit. She also re-asserted that a Canada style deal would be inadequate as the UK will be seeking a significantly more ambitious deal.
So far, so good. A deal that offers alignment in a fews specific areas and competitive divergence in others while maintaining market access is an easy sell to most ministers. The issue, however, is what happens if Brussels refuses to entertain the idea of a bespoke deal. Just this week, Michel Barnier told Prospect magazine that there would be no ‘cherry-picking’ when it comes to the UK’s position post-Brexit:
‘They have to realise there won’t be any cherry picking. We won’t mix up the various scenarios to create a specific one and accommodate their wishes, mixing, for instance, the advantages of the Norwegian model, member of the single market, with the simple requirements of the Canadian one. No way. They have to face the consequences of their own decision.’
However, his words ought not to be taken as gospel just yet. All EU27 countries will have a say and just last week Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian prime minister, called on the EU to offer a ‘tailor-made’ Brexit trade deal to the UK:
‘We need a tailor-made model for the relationship between the UK and the EU but the first move, in my opinion, has to come from the UK because the level of ambition needs to come from the side asking to leave.’
So while further Cabinet discussions will take place early in the New Year on the future partnership and the precise nature of the implementation period, the crunch talks – and the real disagreement – is likely to come if and when trade-offs have to be made.