Theresa May is through Chequers with a plan that proposes having the UK follow EU rules on goods and agri-foods. This isn’t what the Cabinet’s Brexiteers would have expected two years ago, or even nine months ago. But as I say in The Sun this morning, the biggest single reason they are putting up with this is that they don’t have an alternative plan.
When Boris Johnson invited the Cabinet’s Brexiteers plus Gavin Williamson and Sajid Javid, who were pivotal to the Brexiter inner Cabinet’s rejection of Theresa May’s new customs partnership plan, to his office for a meeting on Wednesday morning it only highlighted the group’s problems.
First, Javid declined the invitation, as he didn’t want to get factional. Second, Chris Grayling, who was May’s campaign chair in the 2016 leadership contest, was visibly uncomfortable with the tone of the conversation. Tellingly, he didn’t attend Thursday night’s meeting of the group. Third, Michael Gove spent the meeting bemoaning, in the dialect of his native Aberdeen, how dire the situation was.
Gove’s point was that the absence of rigorous ‘no deal’ planning meant that the UK couldn’t simply walk away from the table. Even those who were disappointed with Gove’s attitude in the meeting admit he is right about this.
The next problem is that a free trade deal, building on the one Canada recently signed with the EU, wouldn’t match the commitments that Theresa May signed up to on the Irish border in December. This would mean that the UK would end up having to put up an internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. This wouldn’t be acceptable to most Tory MPs let alone the DUP—upon whom May relies for her Commons majority.
At the first meeting, the Brexiteers considered coming up with their own alternative plan that would better respect the red lines that May had set out in her Lancaster House speech. But they pulled back from doing this because of a lack of time and a fear that presenting such a document at Chequers would essentially split the government, which they are not prepared to do. One of the ministers present put it to me that ‘the only real way to do it is if you have 5 or 6 people going in and saying they will walk’. But they aren’t up for that.
Going into Chequers, the emerging view among Cabinet Brexiteers was that the time to take a stand is when Michel Barnier comes back demanding more concessions and the blurring of more of May’s red lines. The question then will be whether the UK accedes to these demands or stands firm. The Brexiteers now believe that this is their point of maximum leverage.
But the lack of proper, rigorous ‘no deal’ preparation and the fact the UK legally leaves the EU on March 2019, will mean that Britain will be in a weak position to haggle at this point. The sad truth is that the moment for Brexiters to dig their heels in was over a year ago. They should have demanded a massive, government effort to get the country ready for ‘no deal’. This would have allowed Britain to drive a much harder bargain with the EU.