Brexit at Chequers: what to expect from cabinet meeting
FT political editor George Parker looks at what to expect from UK Prime Minister Theresa May's meeting on Brexit with her full cabinet at Chequers on Friday. The future of the customs union and the Northern Ireland border will top the agenda.
Produced and filmed by Josh de la Mare. Images from Getty and Reuters
The main reason Theresa May is convening her cabinet at Chequers is to finalise the white paper on Britain's future relationship with the EU. This is the white paper which has been promised for many months. A number of decisions are being shelved. Now, she's bringing the cabinet together. They're going to be in Chequers all day and probably late into the evening, maybe late into the early hours, to try and knock heads together and basically to agree a common platform.
It's going to be a difficult meeting. We're going to see lots of arguments. We're going to see people like Philip Hammond, the chancellor, on one hand, making the economic case for a soft Brexit, and people like Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and David Davis, the Brexit secretary, saying we've got to hold true to the purity of the Brexit project they embarked upon two years ago when we voted to leave.
There are two crucial issues which have to be addressed at this summit. The first one is, what kind of customs relationship does Britain want with the EU after we leave? It's been the subject of almost eight months of wrangling in the cabinet between two competing options - the so-called maximum facilitations model, which uses high technology to track things across the border, and a so-called new customs partnership where basically the UK acts as a collecting authority for EU tariffs at its borders.
Neither of them are perfect, and Theresa May is trying to synthesise the two into one model, almost a spawn of the two models. The second thing is the question of the Northern Ireland border. The UK has to come up with an idea of how you manage a frictionless border after Brexit. It's the one issue where it has to be nailed down before we leave. And that comes across the question of customs, but also in the question of regulatory alignment. What kind of single market relationship do we have with the EU after we leave?
In the end, I think she is going to have to confront the Eurosceptics in her cabinet. I think basically Theresa May is now locked on a course which some people would call a more soft Brexit approach. That means people like Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, David Davis, the Brexit secretary, are going to have to swallow a lot of compromises.
The question, then, is, what do they do if they don't like it? Will they walk out as some people are predicting, or do they just stay and fight within the cabinet as we move into endgame of Brexit in the autumn? If I was a betting man, I'd suggest that in the end, despite quite a lot of hot air and quite a lot of bluster, that David Davis and Boris Johnson will still be in their jobs at the end of next week.
Now, two years after the Brexit vote, we're in a remarkable situation where the British cabinet is still negotiating with itself on what sort of Brexit it wants to see. Now, that doesn't quite allow for the other side of the table. Is it going to fly with Brussels? And there are certainly going to be large elements of the white paper that Europe won't be able to accept because it still looks like Theresa May thinks the UK can cherrypick parts of the single market, can have its cake and eat it.
But it's crucial politically for Theresa May that the EU, at the least, engages with the white paper. She can't afford to be fighting on two fronts at the same time. She can't be taking on the Eurosceptics in her cabinet and, at the same time, having whatever she produces at Chequers being thrown back in her face by Brussels the following week. It's an incredibly difficult tightrope that she's walking. And what comes out of Chequers, I think, will determine the future of Britain's relationship with the EU.