Now that ‘sufficient progress’ has been achieved, attention shifts to the coming Cabinet discussion on what kind of trade deal the UK wants with the EU. I report in my Sun column this morning that the inner Brexit Cabinet were meant to meet on Monday afternoon, but that has now been postponed by a week.
When the inner Cabinet do discuss the end state, on one side there’ll be Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Greg Clark who favour a cautious approach of staying as close to EU roles as possible to maximise access to the EU’s internal market. On the other will be Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and David Davis who all favour the UK being able to diverge.
This side of the argument believe that they have received reinforcements in the form of the new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. One Cabinet Minister tells me, ‘Gavin is, definitely, of the view we need to be able to diverge’.
The Defence Secretary’s views do tip the balance in favour of divergence. But those on the other side of this Cabinet debate believe that the need to avoid any kind of border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has strengthened their hand. I understand that their aim is ‘to tuck in behind total belief in the Union and see where that takes us’. After all, if there is to be no border between Northern Ireland and an EU member, the Republic, and no border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, then that leads you to a very soft Brexit.
So, where does the May stand? To date, she has deliberately not shown her hand. But there are signs that she is leaning towards divergence. I understand that both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were assured that ‘alignment’ would still allow the UK to do things its own way and be compatible with taking back control.
There are, however, Brexiteers who fear that May, Boris and Gove are being led up the garden path on this point by officials who will turn round in a few months and tell them that alignment commits the UK to following EU rules.
Diplomatic agreements are often deliberately ambiguous. Yesterday’s was no different. As one senior source on the UK side admits, alignment is a deliberately ‘broad term that covers everything from full regulatory harmonisation to full regulatory equivalence’.
But when talks move onto trade, Theresa May must ensure that the UK has the right to do things differently where it is in the national interest to do so. Without that freedom, Britain won’t be able to make a success of Brexit.