Cabinet revolts usually fizzle out. Those involved may not have the same preoccupations. They may not trust or even like one another. They may have different bottom lines. In any event, the Prime Minister, not the potential rebels, controls the agenda and paperwork, and the Cabinet does not usually vote. Furthermore, she can probably rely on a majority of its members if it comes to a crunch. If they can’t get their way, very few of the dissidents who met yesterday at the Foreign Office – one account claims nine, others settle on seven – have an incentive to resign, though Andrea Leadsom might just feel she has little to lose by going. Departures from the top table would risk toppling Theresa May – by incentivising backbenchers to force a leadership ballot – and boosting Jeremy Corbyn.
There are claims this morning that the Prime Minister has squared one of the unhappy Brexiteers, Liam Fox. The others named are: Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt and Leadsom. Much may depend on the Cabinet’s key “swing voters” – Jeremy Hunt and especially Sajid Javid. Like other senior members of the Cabinet, he has met one on one with May, and has had less than a day to read some of the paperwork. ConservativeHome was told yesterday evening that he “will act in the national interest”.
So the usual rules of Cabinet meetings, formal and informal, favour the Prime Minister. The most likely endgame is that the meeting ends in agreement, and that Brexiteering Ministers brief that they have won concessions. But this is not a usual meeting – it is after all an awayday at Chequers – and the usual rules may not apply. Aggressive Downing Street briefing against Brexiteering Ministers this morning may not help.
We don’t know the full details of what May will propose today. What leaked out yesterday left us struggling to find a comparison. It was claimed that the Prime Minister now wants alignment with the Single Market in manufactures, and believes we must endure elements of the Customs Union, under the backstop provision, until the new Facilitated Customs Arrangement is ready to implement. That date could be well after the next election.
This would be a closer arrangement to the EU than either Norway’s or Switzerland’s, since neither are bound by the Common External Tariff – though May at least seems committed, given her Home Office background, to regaining control of immigration, trading off potential access to Britain for EU citizens against full access to the EU for British services. However, today’s reports suggest that the proposed relationship with the EU could be even closer than yesterday’s reports suggested, with harmonisation of manufacturing rules (not just alignment, from which it is easier to diverge) and the courts obliged in some cases to follow ECJ jurisprudence.
In a nutshell, Johnson and Davis and Gove and company today need an alternative proposal for the UK-Ireland impasse. May’s reported ideas – elements of the customs partnership, plus harmonisation for manufactures and agricultural products – are designed to avoid a hard border. The Brexiteers need a workable route to delivering “Canada Plus Plus Plus” instead.
They will certainly fight for the right to diverge when it comes to regulation. Agreement of whatever kind later today, or early tomorrow, may not be the end of it, even if there are no resignations. At the least, the Prime Minister is proposing the softest possible Brexit within the red lines she has set out. At the most, her new proposals cross those lines.
That would push us towards leadership challenge country – and a contradiction. Most Conservative MPs want May to stay for the time being: after all, a leadership election would paralyse the Government and stall the negotiation. And there is no agreed successor. But they cannot truthfully claim to have confidence in the Prime Minister. This site scarcely knows a single one who believes that she can lead the Party into the next election. Downing Street is quoted this morning as saying that dissident Ministers will be faced down – one report criticises “ego-driven” Cabinet ministers. But May is not in a strong position to issue threats.
Our Brexiteering frog worked out some weeks ago that the temperature of the water in which he swims is gradually rising. What may count most today is not whether the water boils over, but whether his temper and patience do so instead – or first.