Shortly before yesterday’s special meeting at Chequers began, a senior Government source attacked about a quarter of the Cabinet. “Narcissistic leadership dominated Cabinet Ministers”, this person said, should back the Prime Minister or “their spots will be taken by a talented new generation of MPs who will sweep them away”. Anyone who resigned would be denied a final spin in their ministerial car. “Taxi cards for Aston’s taxis the local cab firm are in the foyer”, the source added, pointing out that “it will still be a long walk as it is a mile long driveway”.
As it happens, this voice from Downing Street had made a mistake. Aston’s has reportedly closed. But the statement none the less revealed a deeper truth. Its sounded less like the grown-up voice of government, concerned to keep a group of divergent group of people united round a common aim, than a factional student union politician, taking spotty aim at a rival. The tone reminded some of us of the Federation of Conservative Students during the happy years of the 1980s. And there is another point: not once, when Dominic Grieve and his allies menaced the future of the Government, did Number Ten speak of them in this way. Leavers, go figure.
None the less, the terrible thought occurs that maybe this Downing Street squit had a point. For later that day, the Cabinet Brexiteers simply rolled over, for all their massing in Boris Johnson’s office on Friday. They were presented yesterday not with a moderate prospectus for negotiation – alignment in goods, say, with intent to diverge when appropriate; headroom to negotiate trade deals over agri-food; a max fac replacement over time for the UK-Ireland backstop – but Theresa May’s red lines blurred to the point of erosion.
There will be argument during the days to come about whether or not the Government’s new position opens Britain to the direct jurisdiction of the European Court. But the net effect of the Prime Minister’s new policy is, certainly, to opt out of key elements of the EU and, then, to opt back in. It proposes not alignment for manufactures, but “ongoing harmonisation”. “Due regard” will be paid to EU case law – the green light for judges to follow ECJ rulings that Brexiteer Ministers feared. On paper, new trade deals will be possible. In practise, they will be improbable, especially if agri-foods are closed off. On second thoughts, even possibility may not be possible, for we will be in the backstop until the technology for the Government’s new customs scheme is ready, assuming the EU ever agrees to it.
The Brexiteering Ministers did not exactly go gentle into this dismal night, but they didn’t really rage against the dying of the light either. Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox, Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey all spoke up against bits of the plan – the whole of which explodes the Vote Leave prospectus of a free-trading future for Britain. Andrea Leadsom agonised, according to one source. Chris Grayling was muted. But that caucus in the Foreign Office produced no counter-proposal. “Boris was incapable of chairing it properly,” one Minister present told this site. The dream of Canada Plus Plus Plus died yesterday at Chequers.
There is a case for this display of masterly inactivity: that the EU, having learned that pressure on May wins concessions, will now twist the thumbscew – especially over immigration, which was not discussed in detail. At that point, the argument runs, Davis or Johnson or Mordaunt or more will quit, if the balance of opinion in the Commons hasn’t already swung towards No Deal, in protest against the EU’s unreasonableness. But a horse that has shied from jumping a fence once may not leap it a second time, and threatening resignation but not delivering can degenerate into a habit. It’s worth noting that other Ministers joined the Brexiteers on some points. For example, Sajid Javid pressed the Prime Minister hard on migration, though there is an ambiguous reference in the text to “a mobility framework”.
Michael Gove’s big argument, made consistently during the past few months, is about Brexit itself. It is very close to our view of a few days ago: that one mustn’t let the best be the enemy of the good; that half a sixpence is better than none; that a Brexit in the hand is worth two in the bush. It follows that, given the choice between a bad Brexit and no Brexit, the former is preferable – since future governments can follow the logic of leaving the EU, gradually disentangling Britain, from outside the union, as our share of trade with it continues to fall, and the threat of counter-measures becomes less potent. This cannot be done from inside.
There is also a plus to the plan which should be clocked. The early signs are that it will do enough to stop the Commons imposing the Customs Union, in effect, on the Government through an amendment to a Bill: Grieve or Ken Clarke or Anna Soubry or whoever may now back off. It looks to give May control of Parliament on Brexit. But it is none the less true (perhaps consequently true) that if the Government’s own test applies – that’s to say, that if no deal is better than a bad deal, then the sum of this policy is a bad deal, even before the EU gets at it and seeks to pare it down. Tory MPs who believe in taking back control of our laws, borders and money thus have a stony choice before them.
The consequences of voting down a deal based on this plan might not force an election – though one never knows. But doing so could open the door not to No Deal, but to the EEA, or to suspended animation, or even to the cancellation of Brexit itself. These are the possibilites they must now weigh. Meanwhile, the theatre of the Chequers event – with Ministers denied their phones for the proceedings, and Downing Street having a monopoly on the net, the TV studios and social media – has thrown the European Research Group on to the back foot. As we write, there has been no statement from Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Where is Antony?” “Fled to his house amazed. / Men, wives and children stare, cry out and run / As it were doomsday.” The Brexiteer frog is vanishing beneath the bubbles.
May herself has written a letter to Conservative MPs that carries on, in a more adult way, where that voice from Downing Street left off. She has, it says, allowed “cabinet colleagues to express their individual views” up to now, but “agreement on this proposal marks the point where that is no longer the case and collective responsibility is now fully restored”. That is a horse’s head in Johnson’s bed; an Aston’s card in Davis’s in-tray – and, by implication, a menace to Tory MPs more grave that Nick Boles’ recent one of isolation in the tearoom. Within the Party, for the best part of 25 years, Conservative Brexiteers have ruled the waves. Yesterday could just mark the point at which that tide turned – where May, with Nick Timothy no longer present to steer her, has returned to her natural course.