Theresa May cracks whip to finalise post-Brexit blueprint

Plan represents a closer relationship to EU than many pro-Brexit campaigners hoped for

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May commences a meeting with her cabinet to discuss the government's Brexit plans at Chequers, near Aylesbury, on July 6, 2018.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May commences a meeting with her cabinet to discuss the government's Brexit plans at Chequers, near Aylesbury, on July 6, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May has stamped her authority on pro-Brexit Cabinet rebels by forcing them to back her plan to keep close trade ties with the European Union after leaving, but some MPs expressed alarm - and she must still sell it to Brussels.

The pound rose and the country's main business lobby welcomed the proposal, which came as Mrs May warned ministers that if they criticise her policies in future they will lose their jobs.

It was enough to convince outspoken Brexit campaigners including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis to get in line.

After more than 12 hours of talks at Mrs May's Chequers country residence, the Cabinet signed off on a blueprint for the future relationship that Britain will seek to negotiate with the EU.

The meeting, which sprawled over lunch and dinner, produced a plan for a new UK-EU "free trade area". It involves Britain weaving its customs regime around the bloc's rules, and adopting identical regulations for industrial and agri-food goods.

There was no such design for close ties for Britain's huge services sector, and London-based banks were warned they will lose their current levels of access to the EU market. New arrangements will seek to preserve the "mutual benefits of integrated markets".

"Today, in detailed discussions, the Cabinet has agreed our collective position for the future of our negotiations with the EU," Mrs May said in a statement released by her office, with talks ongoing. "Now we must all move at pace to negotiate our proposal with the EU to deliver the prosperous and secure future all our people deserve".

The plan represents a closer relationship to the EU single market than many pro-Brexit campaigners hoped for when Mrs May first set out her plans in January last year.

The EU's chief negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, said the bloc would assess the plans when they are fleshed out in a policy paper next week, to "see if they are workable and realistic".

Uniting her Cabinet was a big win for Mrs May, after two years of very public splits. In a letter to members of her Conservative party, she said she had allowed ministers to speak out before, but "collective responsibility is now fully restored".

Several euro-sceptic ministers yesterday publicly backed the premier, including leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. Pro-European MPs who had previously rebelled against Mrs May also offered their support for the plan, with Ms Anna Soubry saying it "delivers a business-friendly Brexit".

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Douglas Carswell, who co-founded the official Brexit campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, gave his backing.

"Read the detail and ask if this allows us to take back control. It does. Incrementally," he tweeted.

"A deal that guarantees us access to the (EU's single market) until such time as we chose regulatory divergence?... Sounds ok to me."

But Mr Nigel Farage, the founder of the UK Independence Party and a key player in the Brexit vote, dismissed the plan as a "sell-out".

Veteran euro-sceptic MP Bill Cash also told the BBC he was "deeply disappointed".

Any final deal must be agreed in the House of Commons, where Mrs May has only a slim majority dependent on the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party.

But before that, it must be agreed with the EU, which has repeatedly warned it will not accept "cherry-picking" elements of its single market. Mrs May was cautious on whether she will win the support of the EU, saying only that she had "been talking to European leaders over the last week or so".

"This is a proposal that I believe will be good for the UK and good for the EU and I look forward to it being received positively," she said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 08, 2018, with the headline 'Theresa May cracks whip to finalise post-Brexit blueprint'. Print Edition | Subscribe