There is widespread, fevered speculation that the prime minister will move away from her Chequers plan for a future relationship with the EU at this afternoon’s Cabinet, under intense pressure from her ministerial colleagues.
Having now spoken to several ministers, I am clear that she will stand firm on Chequers, and there probably won’t be a concerted and coordinated effort TODAY from the Brexiters in her team – Gove, Fox, Leadsom, Mordaunt and McVey – to shift her towards the kind of free trade proposal preferred by Boris Johnson, David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the European Research Group.
That said, and as I’ve mentioned before, it is becoming harder and harder for Brexity ministers – apart, conspicuously, from Gove – to adhere to collective cabinet responsibility for a Chequers deal they loathe.
At some point, the elastic that ties them to government will snap and one or more of them will quit. But my sense is today’s not that moment of theatre.
In this tragi-comic drama, if the intention of quitting would be to cause maximum noise, and therefore stand a better chance of shifting the Brexit agenda, it would be better to delay resignations till next week’s Tory Party conference. Or at least that’s what Tory Brexit rebels tell me.
The big political point however, which I’ll set out here, is that the ideological and policy gulf between the Johnsons. Davises and the ERG-ers, on the one hand, and May as per her official Brexit policy is more-or-less the size the of the Atlantic.
This can be seen in the so-called ‘Plan A+’ written by the wonks Shanker A Singham and Radomir Tylecote – drawn up for the free-market-loving Institute for Economic Affairs and which will be backed today by Johnson, Davis, Rees-Mogg, Baker et al – whose executive summary I’ve obtained.
It is also conspicuous from the logic of where the prime minister has to move to agree to secure a deal with European government heads on the UK’s future relationship with the EU – which in fact is further away from the kind of free-trade arrangements outlined in ‘Plan A+’ and wanted by Tory Brexiters.
Or to put it another way, May is diverging from the Brexit wing of her party: and she almost admitted as much when she furiously tried to slap down EU leaders and the council president Tusk on Friday, by insisting that Chequers is the only credible basis for negotiation.
So here, in their own words, are the big differences between Johnson/Davis/Singham on the one hand and May and her Cabinet on the other.
Perhaps the most important statement in the Brexiters’ ‘Plan A+’ is that ‘tying the UK to future EU regulation is a major threat to the UK economy’ – because it is such a direct challenge to May’s Common Rulebook, that would mean the EU setting standards forever for the production of goods and food in the UK.
As for the controversial Northern Ireland backstop, which is the sine qua non of a Brexit withdrawal agreement and therefore of an orderly, planned Brexit, Plan A+ recommends ‘a basic free trade agreement between the UK and the EU for goods, and a commitment by the parties to undertake all necessary investment and cooperation mechanisms to enable formalities on trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland to be overseen away from the border.’
If the EU were to agree such a backstop, Plan A+ proposes a UK-EU Free Trade Plus deal that would have ‘zero tariffs in good and agriculture’ and ‘maximum regulatory recognition’ of autonomously determined rules and regulations.
This would liberate the UK to negotiate new free trade agreements with the US, India, China and so on, and seek membership of other countries’ ‘plurilateral’ trade arrangements, such as NAFTA in North America and the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership in Asia, Australasia and the Americas.
If the EU said ‘non, nein, never’ to all this – which it probably would, since it has already made clear that it has no confidence in a Northern Ireland backstop putatively solved by moving border checks a few miles from the actual border – then ‘the UK should move to a more aggressive footing’, according to Plan A+.
It says: ‘if the EU refuses to recognise UK regulations on day one of Brexit, the UK should be prepared to to take action in the WTO for violations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the GATT) and the Agreements on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT Agreement) and Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement).’
Or to put it another way, the Plan A+ approach is broadly one of saying to the EU that the UK wants maximum freedom to set its global trade policy, and is prepared to secure this liberation the nice way, or the nasty way.
So what chance is there of May and her Whitehall advisers, led by Olly Robbins, signing up to this framework?
Well, on the basis of the conversations I’ve had with ministers over the past couple of days, I would say there is zero chance of entente between May and the True Brexiters.
In fact, the logic of using Chequers as a negotiating platform would take her away from the Brexiters.
Here is why.
1) To overcome German concerns that the distinction between goods and services isn’t as sharp as Chequers sets out, the UK would end up following EU rules in additional limited service activities.
2) To properly marry the proposal for frictionless trade in goods and food over the long term with a Northern Ireland backstop, the UK will be under intense pressure to sign up for membership of a conventional Customs Union in place of the PM’s preferred Facilitated Customs Arrangement. This would bring the political benefit to May of making it harder for Labour, which backs customs-union membership, to oppose such a Brexit deal – though it would outrage the Brexiters in her own party, because it would mean surrendering the right to negotiate trade deals with other countries.
3) There will be intense pressure from the EU to give preferential treatment to their citizens to live and work in the UK, especially when it comes to the new quotas for low-skilled jobs here. This is on the agenda for Cabinet today, and will occasion a lively debate (ahem) – especially since the home secretary Sajid Javid has been very clear that he opposes any favourable treatment for EU migrants, and most Brexiters are on his side.
What is the big point?
It is that the scope for compromise between May and the Brexiters seems non-existent. And if politics is often the art of devising words and formulae to disguise tensions and rivalries between members of the same party, even Shakespeare couldn’t hide the schism between May and her Brexiter MPs.
This article originally appeared on Robert Peston’s Facebook page