The Brexit War Cabinet’s decisions need to match Theresa May’s own red lines and rhetoric

The Brexit War Cabinet’s decisions need to match Theresa May’s own red lines and rhetoric

The significance of the decisions made at Chequers today by the Cabinet sub-committee charged with overseeing the UK’s Brexit negotiating strategy cannot be overestimated.

In short, the ministers present will decide whether to adhere to the position set out by the Prime Minister on multiple occasions over the last year that the UK must be able to control its own destiny as an independent nation state; or they could back a course of action that would be incompatible with the decision made on 23rd June 2016, which could in turn spark government turmoil, resignations and potentially a challenge to the Prime Minister’s position from her own backbenches.

In her speech at Lancaster House in January 2017 – always worth a re-read – Theresa May put clear red lines in place, the most significant of which were that Brexit must mean taking back control of our laws, our borders and our money while regaining the right to negotiate our own trade deals around the globe.

She has repeated them often, doing so in terms just yesterday at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday:

“We are very clear that we are going to ensure that, when we leave the European Union, we are able to take back control of our borders, our money and our laws… we want to ensure that this is a country that can negotiate free trade deals around the rest of the world.”

But concern remains among eurosceptics at Westminster familiar with the papers prepared for the sub-committee today that certain forces within government – notably the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood; the Prime Minister’s Brexit Adviser, Oliver Robbins; and the Chancellor, Philip Hammond – are seeking to impede the delivery of Brexit in line with the Prime Minister’s clear rhetoric.

I understand that the documents before the ministers today leave open the possibility of paying the financial settlement before a final deal and the end state are known or agreed – which would not fit with the regular mantra of “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Even more serious in relation to today’s meeting is the prospect being pushed, in particular from the Treasury, that the UK should accept continuing full regulatory alignment with the EU – despite David Davis pushing the case for mutual recognition in his speech in Vienna on Tuesday.

In The Times today, our Editor-at-Large, Matthew Elliott, who was Chief Executive of the Vote Leave campaign, makes clear why the alignment of regulations with Brussels would be unacceptable:

“We would not only have to obey EU laws as they are now, but would have any future changes to those laws forced upon us, without any say over them whatsoever. This would leave the UK in the position of rule-taker, not rule-maker, and risk the ‘vassal state’ arrangement which leading Brexiteers have warned of. We would remain under the yoke of the EU and the ECJ, not in control of our own laws. As Boris Johnson warned in the first Road to Brexit speech last week, it would be ‘intolerable and undemocratic’ for EU laws and regulations to continue to be imposed on Britain after it leaves the European Union.

“Having full control over our laws and regulations is also a vital component of Britain operating its own independent trade policy, and arguably the most significant element of that is the UK’s ability to set its own external tariffs. This is why it was so important that Downing Street moved to quash speculation earlier this month that the UK could possibly join a ‘new’ customs union with the EU after Brexit, given that we are definitely leaving the EU customs union.”

A source close to Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, told me yesterday:

“Boris takes the view that it would be utter madness to have gone through this whole process only to end up in a position where in effect all that has changed is that we no longer have a seat at the table where the rules are made.”

Another source suggested to me that there would be “the mother and father of all rows” over this at today’s meeting since it was impossible to square what is going to be on the table both with what the country voted for at the referendum and indeed with the red lines the Prime Minister has set out herself over the last year. “If accepting full alignment is the starting point in the negotiation, what more is there to concede?” he added.

There was alarm at yesterday’s leak of a draft government document which took issue with the EU’s proposed 21-month implementation phase for being not long enough and seemed to leave open the possibility of an indefinite transition phase. At least Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, sought to scotch this when he told BBC2’s Daily Politics yesterday that “there will be a fixed date” for the end of any such period.

But that document also suggested an expectation that the Government would be bound by “the duty of sincere cooperation” throughout the transition phase, thereby preventing the UK from beginning to negotiate trade deals during that period – which the Government has been clear it wants the power to do. This is again despite David Davis having been crystal clear in evidence to the Brexit Select Committee in January that during any transition period, “…we will not be subject to the duty of sincere co-operation, which is what stops us from arriving at trade deals, negotiating and signing trade deals now” (Q736). Gisela Stuart addresses this point in greater detail in her excellent piece for BrexitCentral today.

All of which bring me back to the point that critical decisions need to be made today – which have arguably already been put off for too long. The recommendations made by the more than sixty MPs who signed John Penrose’s letter to the Prime Minister last week – leaked to the media on Tuesday night – need to be taken on board. Their four most crucial points were that the UK must:

  • Take full control of UK tariff schedules at the WTO with the power to change them without sign-off from the EU27
  • Enjoy “full regulatory autonomy” with the ability to change British laws and rules unilaterally
  • Be free to start trade negotiations immediately after leaving the EU, which may involve ensuring the UK has the power to discuss the division of the EU’s Tariff Rate Quotas with non-EU trading partners bilaterally
  • Have the freedom to negotiate and sign other trade agreements during the implementation period in line with WTO principles

A speech from Theresa May is pencilled in for next week in which she needs to able to explain how the decisions on the Government’s strategy for the Brexit negotiations made today chime with what she has been saying for the last year. If she is not able to do that, I would not be surprised to see ministers considering their positions and some of her backbenchers publicly questioning her leadership. But that is an ‘if’. Assuming that ministers make the right call today, she can look forward to the same support that she has enjoyed at other big moments on this journey when she has succeeded in confounding her critics.