Theresa May’s decision to cancel a sleepover next Thursday with her Brexit “war cabinet” suggests she’s planning to embrace a softer Brexit policy.
There had been reports that May would convene her most senior Cabinet colleagues at the prime minister’s official country retreat, Chequers, to thrash out the details of a long-awaited Brexit white paper, before the rest of the 30-strong Cabinet joined them next Friday.
That Thursday sleepover has now been cancelled, according to multiple reports, and that could be significant.
The 11-strong Brexit war cabinet, formally called the strategy and negotiations committee, forms May’s core team and is divided between Remainers and Leavers. When Sajid Javid replaced Amber Rudd as Home Secretary, the balance of the group tilted slightly towards Brexit.
The entire 30-strong Cabinet, however, is more friendly towards Remain, with only 8 having voted for Brexit.
The decision to cancel the initial meeting with the Brexit war cabinet has, therefore, sparked fears that May will use Friday’s meeting to try and settle on a softer version of Brexit.
A Downing Street source denied to the Times Red Box that the move does not represent an attempt to use pro-EU minded colleagues to overwhelm Leavers, saying: “The white paper sprawls across the entirety of government, every department.”
Crucial decisions about what form of Brexit the UK will pursue need to be made on Friday.
The question of what sort of customs arrangement the UK will have with the EU after Brexit still needs to be resolved and will form a central part of discussions at the meeting. Brexiteers advocate the “max-fac” option, which would rely on technology to monitor goods passing borders. However, May and her allies prefer a “customs partnership” option, which would see the UK collect tariffs on behalf of Brussels on goods coming into the country.
Opponents of the customs partnership, including Boris Johnson and David Davis, thought they had seen off the plan, but they now fear May will try to resurrect it.
Her plans for a soft Brexit could go much further than that, however, with reports that there is a white paper circulating around Downing Street which proposes binding Britain into the European single market for goods.
Members of the European Union are split on whether to allow such “cherry-picking,” according to the Times. While the idea would be popular with business, it would prevent Britain from striking its own trade deals, something May has previously ruled out.
The white paper is expected to be published on Monday, July 9, sources in Brussels have told Business Insider.
Soft Brexit mood music
May appears to have been paving the way to a more conciliatory, business-friendly approach to Brexit this week.
Speaking at the Times CEO summit on Tuesday, she was asked about Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reportedly saying “f*ck business” when asked about the concerns of British firms over Brexit.
She made it clear that she was on the side of British business — a growing number of whom have railed against the dangers of hard Brexit this week — and said: “It’s right that we listen to the voice of business. It’s right that business makes its voice heard.”
EU and UK negotiators will meet in Brussels at the European Council summit on Thursday and Friday, but a lack of progress on key issues such as the Irish border means Brexit has been booted down the agenda, with October looking like a more realistic date for the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement.
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