The Tories Have Finally Agreed A Brexit Plan. Here's What You Need To Know
Theresa May has succeeded in getting her feuding cabinet ministers to sign up to a softer Brexit plan. But will hardline Tory MPs back it, and what are the chances of the EU agreeing it?
Two years after Britain voted to leave the European Union – and just eight months before exit day – Theresa May's bitterly divided cabinet has finally agreed a negotiating position.
On Friday, the prime minister summoned her senior ministers to Chequers, her official country residence in Buckinghamshire, for an all-day summit. It was the most important meeting so far in the Brexit process – billed as "make or break" for both the Brexit talks and May's political career.
The UK is now pushing for a "softer" withdrawal from the EU.
In a three-page document released by Downing Street late on Friday night, the government laid out plans to continue following the EU's rules on the trade of goods – but not services – and to implement a customs regime that is closely aligned to that of the EU.
Although the government will try to appease Conservative Eurosceptics by insisting that its plan would still satisfy their "red lines" by allowing independent trade deals to be struck and migration of EU citizens to be curtailed, Tory insiders said May has clearly shifted her position. It is far from the "clean" or "hard" break from the EU's rules and institutions that many in her party want, and much closer to the "soft Brexit" that business groups have been lobbying for.
According to one Tory adviser: The party has finally woken up to the reality of Brexit.
Brexit-supporters in May's cabinet appear to have capitulated.
There'd been rampant speculation in the lead-up to the summit that May's plan to remain closely-aligned with the EU would trigger a mass walk-out by several leavers in the Cabinet.
Many observers, including Tory Brexiters, believed that after months of bitter public disagreement, this would finally be the moment that some of the cabinet's big beasts tried to seize control of the process. On Thursday night, several cabinet ministers including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and David Davis gathered in the foreign secretary's office to discuss their response. However, despite being unhappy about the proposal, none resigned.
According to one government source, Johnson "grumbled" at Chequers but did not totally reject the plans. Insiders said the Brexiters have been boxed in. After months of open warfare, Downing Street indicated that it will no longer tolerate dissent from cabinet ministers who aren't on board – and pointedly named several ambitious younger ministers who are in line for promotions. After the summit, on Saturday morning, Leadsom tweeted supportively, saying she agreed with the prime minister that "keeping the UK together is vital".
Beyond cabinet, many Leavers were furious and accused May of betraying the result of the referendum. In their view, her proposals will keep the UK so closely tied to Brussels that it's hardly worth leaving.
All eyes now are on Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group, the alliance of backbench Tories that want a hard break from the EU. With around 70 active members, they've got the numbers to trigger a leadership challenge and some will see this as the moment to move.
The ERG has been the most powerful faction of the Conservative party since the referendum but in recent months they've felt the Brexit process slipping away from them. In the days leading up to Chequers, Rees-Mogg warned that anything less than a clean break from the EU's rules and institutions would be unacceptable. "A very soft Brexit means we haven't left, we simply are a rule-taker," Rees-Mogg told Radio 4's Today programme on Saturday morning. "It's not what the prime minister promised."
Rees-Mogg said he won't vote for a deal that doesn't deliver Brexit. The question is, what will he and his colleagues do now? Privately, some ERG members have said they're prepared to challenge May in the hope of removing her and getting another Tory leader who would take a tougher stance with the EU. But caucus is more divided than it usually seems from the outside.
Others in the group think that while they've got the numbers to trigger a contest, they don't have enough to actually win it. Some senior figures believe it's better to hold off until May presents a final deal to parliament and then vote against it, which could then mean there's no choice but to make a hard break from the EU. Others are willing to accept May's compromises, even though they're not happy about them, as long as the UK is out.
Tory Remainers will be broadly pleased with the Chequers agreement. May has moved in their direction. The agreement will give at least some comfort to the corporations and business groups that have been raising the alarm about a hard Brexit.
Nicky Morgan, the Tory MP for Loughborough and former education secretary, told BuzzFeed News: "I think it’s a huge step in the right direction."
That might not last long, though. Some Remainers are worried that the UK's plan protects trade in goods but not services, which accounts for the bulk of our economy.
There's still a lot that is unclear about the government's plans and we won't know more about the detail until it publishes a white paper setting it out next week.
One area that has already caused confusion is the position on the so-called "backstop".
To get a deal by March 2019, the UK needs to agree to a "backstop" solution that avoids a hard border in Northern Ireland in all scenarios, and regardless of the future UK-EU relationship. This, more than anything, is vital to securing an agreement of the terms of Britain's withdrawal, and the two-year transition phase that would follow that.
But the statement released by Downing Street on Friday night is ambiguous on this point. It's not clear whether May has agreed to the EU's version of the backstop, under which Northern Ireland would retain aspects of the EU's single market and customs union until another solution is found, or whether she is sticking to her position that a fall-back would apply to the whole UK.
The EU won't agree to the latter because, it believes, it would allow Britain to continue having the benefits of the EU's single markets without contributing to the costs.
A government source told BuzzFeed News they didn’t know the details of the backstop beyond what was said in last night's statement.
The really big question now is how the EU will react to May's plan. If they reject it outright, the UK is back to zero.
The EU27's initial assessment of May's plan, according to details shared with BuzzFeed News, is that aspects of it are problematic because they cross red lines set out by the 27 leaders in their negotiating guidelines. Proposals included in the paper – such as remaining in the single market for goods without the single market’s other freedoms (people, services and capital), and a clear legal oversight mechanism – are unacceptable.
Brussels also feels that May’s new customs proposal, which would see Britain collect duties on behalf of the EU, looks a lot like the customs partnership they have already rejected, according to the assessment.
Publicly, however, the EU is expected to initially welcome the new plans as a step towards more detailed negotiations. For the EU27 leaders the question isn't whether to shoot down the proposals, but when.
The EU has insisted from the beginning that it will not allow "cherry-picking"; that the single market comes with all the benefits and obligations, or none at all.
Michel Barnier, Europe's chief negotiator, at least didn't dismiss the proposals out of hand on Friday night.
But a lot of experts think this is just the start of a bigger climb-down. They think the EU will now try to strong-arm the UK an even closer relationship than May has just committed to.
Privately, UK officials say May has gone as far as she really can, given the opposition in her own party, and that Brussels will now have to compromise if it wants to avoid a catastrophic meltdown in the talks. The UK will continue appealing directly to individual member states around Europe to press this point.
One thing is clear: While May has survived another crunch moment, and finally secured agreement from her cabinet, the danger is far from over. According to one Remain-supporting Tory MP, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on Saturday, the prime minister has achieved a "veneer of unity around a set of unachievable goals", but her strategy could still unravel by the end of the year.