With one bound she was free. Well maybe not. Theresa May’s aides and allies were claiming victory overnight after the all-day strategy meeting at Chequers to pin down the future shape of Brexit. At first glance it is easy to buy into this narrative.
After much huffing and puffing the Brexiters in her cabinet, led ineffectually by Boris Johnson, appear to have quivered and caved in the face of some stiff words, some steely gazes and a fairly detailed briefing from the chancellor Philip Hammond about the economic damage that would be wrought by a chaotic Brexit. They were happy to issue threats in advance, but in the end it was so much hot air. This was a return to the pre-election Mrs May, happy to see her mouthpieces mocking her own ministers — there were jokes about confiscating ministerial cars and talk of replacements already pencilled in. Friday night’s headlines left the hardliners looking weak and vanquished. It will be interesting to see if their friends on the Sunday papers and rightwing press offer a different version of events.
The document certainly appears a victory for the soft-Brexiters in cabinet, though with just enough of a fig leaf of independence to spare the hardliners’ biggest blushes. In essence the plan commits the UK to a free trade area with the EU. While it does not use such language this is to all extents and purposes a customs union and a single market for goods and agricultural products. But it is a “customs arrangement” rather than the customs union.
The UK agrees to abide by EU regulations and rules, but it has the independent right to opt out. Obviously this right would not be exercised since, whatever the provocation, the economic damage would be unlikely ever to justify such a step. Likewise, Britain would not be bound by the European Court of Justice but it would have to pay due heed to its rulings. The UK courts remain supreme as long as they don’t do anything so rash as ignore the Luxembourg court. Britain retains the right to pursue other free trade deals, except that those deals must be subject to the EU rules by which Britain has agreed to abide.
This, then is the tenor of the document: the softest Brexit imaginable contingent with the theoretical maintenance of independence and need to avoid return to a hard border with Ireland. This may not quite be the “vassal state”, since the state has taken back the right to opt out of it. It is just that it is unlikely ever to be worth doing so. Only on services, the actual motor of the British economy, has the government held firm to Brexit principles. The price of freedom of movement was too great to pay although there are proposals on the easy mobility of labour. It is, from a Brexit enthusiasts’ perspective, a ludicrous position. It is pretty ludicrous from a remainer perspective too — it is just less ludicrous than some of the alternatives.
So given such a provocation, why did the Brexiters not bark? Why the silent submission? There are three main reasons. The first is that they are weaker than they look. Mrs May has calculated that they do not have the numbers to stop her. The second is that the most important issue for them — for Michael Gove and Liam Fox especially — is just to get Brexit over the line. They will get to March 29, regroup and start the fight again.
The third reason is that they may rightly conclude that this remains just an opening gambit. After two years of negotiations the cabinet has managed to strike a deal with itself. But this is only the proposal Mrs May’s team can take to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. His words in advance were notable. All manner of deals were on offer but none appeared to match the one proposed. The one certainty all cabinet members face is that Brussels will demand more concessions; the proposals on the European Court primacy look especially vulnerable. For Brexit hardliners there are more matches in this contest. They are outnumbered in parliament. The cabinet is their point of maximum pressure. Walking away now would rob them of influence.
And this is assuming the EU is in a mood to cut a deal. Given the UK’s weakness in this negotiation, the lack of any credible threat to walk away, Mr Barnier may see no need to deviate from the European models on offer, principally Canada or Norway.
Mrs May should relish her moment. The likelihood is that this is not the last time she is going to have to wring concessions from her cabinet.