Deal or no deal? Soft Brexit plan a hard sell for May

She’s sur­vived a bruis­ing week. But as Euroscep­tics pre­dict Bri­tain will end up a ‘vas­sal state’ and amid heavy scru­tiny from Brus­sels, can UK Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May de­liver a work­able Brexit? PETER GEOGHE­GAN re­ports

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA - HARD­LINE BREX­I­TEERS

For 48 hours, Theresa May looked as if she was in con­trol of her gov­ern­ment. On Fri­day, July 6, Bri­tain’s em­bat­tled leader called all her min­is­ters to the bu­colic prime min­is­te­rial bolt­hole at Che­quers. The UK cab­i­net, al­most two years to the day of the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, would fi­nally agree a col­lec­tive po­si­tion on leav­ing the Euro­pean Union. Any min­is­ters that did not sign up faced the prospect of a long walk home — min­is­te­rial cars would be im­me­di­ately with­drawn. That evening, to the sur­prise of many, May emerged with an agree­ment.

The so-called ‘Che­quers deal’ was her­alded as a ma­jor break­through. On the Fri­day evening, the BBC re­ported that May had emerged with her po­si­tion greatly strength­ened af­ter ev­ery cab­i­net min­is­ter en­dorsed her pro­pos­als.

Af­ter­wards, the Con­ser­va­tive leader sounded an un­usu­ally bullish tone, telling one Bri­tish news­pa­per that it was up to the Euro­pean Union to step up to the mark. “It’s now for Europe to be pre­pared to sit down and move the pace of ne­go­ti­a­tions on and talk about it se­ri­ously and ad­dress what we’ve put for­ward,” she said.

But by Sun­day evening, such con­fi­dence had evap­o­rated. Hard­line Brex­i­teers had al­ready be­gun to voice their dis­quiet with the Che­quers plan. Main­tain­ing a “com­mon rule book” for goods with the EU, col­lect­ing tar­iffs on be­half of the EU, free move­ment for skilled work­ers and stu­dents from the EU, and giv­ing “due re­gard” to the Euro­pean Courts of Jus­tice was too far for many Euroscep­tic Con­ser­va­tive MPs — and for the Brexit min­is­ter David Davis.

As Sun­day night moved into Mon­day morn­ing, Davis an­nounced that he was re­sign­ing from the De­part­ment for Ex­it­ing the Euro­pean Union. Davis was nom­i­nally in charge of Brexit, but in prac­tice had been usurped by Theresa May’s most trusted aide Olly Rob­bins. In the pre­vi­ous six months, Davis — who is not known for his grasp of de­tail — had spent less than hours in talks with Euro­pean Com­mis­sion chief ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier.

In his res­ig­na­tion let­ter, Davis told May that he was “un­per­suaded” that the gov­ern­ment’s ne­go­ti­at­ing ap­proach “will not just lead to fur­ther de­mands for con­ces­sions” from Brus­sels. “The gen­eral di­rec­tion of pol­icy will leave us in at best a weak ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion, and pos­si­bly an in­escapable one,” he added.

May had hoped to wake up on Mon­day to her first week in con­trol of her cab­i­net since last June’s dis­as­trous gen­eral elec­tion when the Con­ser­va­tives lost their over­all ma­jor­ity in the Com­mons, forc­ing them to rely on the sup­port of Demo­cratic Union­ist MPs. In­stead, the prime min­is­ter had lost her Brexit sec­re­tary and ru­mours were swirling of who would go next.

The most ob­vi­ous can­di­date was Boris John­son. Hav­ing pulled out of the race to suc­ceed David Cameron in 2016 af­ter the EU ref­er­en­dum — stabbed in the back by his run­ning mate and Vote Leave col­league Michael Gove — John­son was brought into the cab­i­net by May in a lit­eral adop­tion of the old adage “keep your friends close and your en­e­mies closer.”

Nom­i­nally John­son was for­eign sec­re­tary — one of Bri­tain’s ‘great of­fices of state’ — but, in re­al­ity, he ran a free­lance op­er­a­tion geared around ma­noeu­vring him­self into Num­ber 10 Down­ing Street. The con­cept of col­lec­tive cab­i­net re­spon­si­bil­ity was an alien one as John­son penned pieces in rightwing broad­sheets at­tack­ing May’s Brexit plan. But the prime min­is­ter was un­able to sack the most prom­i­nent Brex­i­teer in her cab­i­net; to do would risk mutiny from her Euroscep­tic back­benchers.

When John­son did fi­nally go — early on Mon­day after­noon — it was si­mul­ta­ne­ously sur­pris­ing and in­evitable. John­son seemed set to stay un­til Davis’s res­ig­na­tion forced his hand. With the Brexit min­is­ter gone, John­son would strug­gle to ex­plain why he was still sup­port­ing a Che­quers deal that he had told the press pri­vately was a ‘turd’.

But there was lit­tle strate­gic logic to John­son’s de­ci­sion to leave.

Pro-Brexit Tories for whom any con­tin­ued re­la­tion­ship with the Euro­pean Union is anath­ema lack the num­bers to force May out. This point was tac­itly ac­knowl­edged by an­other re­sign­ing cab­i­net min­is­ter — ju­nior Brexit sec­re­tary Steve Baker — who noted that “arith­metic” might “con­strain the Gov­ern­ment’s free­dom of ac­tion”.

Baker will re­turn to where he has al­ways been: the anti-EU Tory back­benches. In­deed, within min­utes of his res­ig­na­tion, he had once again been made an ad­min­is­tra­tor of the What­sApp group con­trolled by the Euro­pean Re­search Group (ERG), the rather in­con­gru­ously ti­tled cadre of hard­line

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