This week’s Cabinet meeting
ConservativeHome is told that there are two Brexit-related items on the agenda for discussion at tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting. The first is the now-weekly deliberation on preparations for leaving itself and for No Deal. The second is a more general exchange and gathering of views.
That might seem to provide an opportunity for Theresa May to put a draft deal to Cabinet members. It looks like a convenient week for Downing Street to do so. This is because the Commons is in recess from tomorrow until next Tuesday, November 12. It would suit Number Ten for MPs to be absent if and when proposals are put to the Cabinet, because this would minimise the opportunities for hostile reaction and the inevitable talk of a leadership challenge.
However, it appears that the Government and the EU have not yet reached an outline agreement, though there is so much smoke and mirrors that one can never be quite sure. In any event, the Prime Minister would presumably not want to risk putting a proposal agreed by Sabine Weyand and Olly Robbins straight to Cabinet members. (Remember what happened three or so weeks ago.)
A summit in mid-to-late November?
A more likely way of proceeding would be for the Cabinet to have another discussion about the key issues at stake – including five key issues we raised yesterday: the Northern Ireland backstop, implications for Scotland and the Union, a UK-wide customs arrangement, the enforcability of a political declaration, and what this last might contain.
We hope that Cabinet members press, as some did at last week’s meeting, for three conditions to met for any proposed deal. That they approve it; that the Attorney General gives a view of it in writing, and that the Chief Whip offers an assessment of its likelihood to pass the Commons – in particular, whether it would effectively split the Conservative Parliamentary Party and leave Theresa May reliant on Labour backbench votes for it to pass.
Cabinet members told this site yesterday that any draft deal must be put to them for approval. Number Ten wants to get a move on, because the more time ticks away before March 29, the less of it the Government will have to get its legislative preparations completed. A date for a special summit to deal that deal was previously provisionally pencilled-in for the weekend of November 17-18.
Will Raab go to Brussels this week?
One view is that settling a mid-to-late November date for a summit is only possible if Dominic Raab flies to Brussels later this week to agree it with Michel Barnier. If this is correct, the Prime Minister would seek tomorrow to get broad agreement from the Cabinet for him to do so on an agreed basis.
If Raab and Barnier reached an agreement about a draft deal and summit date, May would duly go to the latter herself to formalise the agreement in principle. There is talk of a four-way press conference at the end of such a summit, starring the Prime Minister, Barnier, Donald Tusk…and Raab himself (to show the Parliamentary Party that the pro-Leave Brexit Secretary is signed up). The deal would then be put to Cabinet.
Such a timetable would leave a dangerous gap for Number Ten between an agreement to hold a summit and it actually taking place. It would presumably be filled by claims and counter-claims about what was in the deal to be signed off. There would be that talk of 48 letters to Graham Brady. However, Brexiteering Tory MPs would probably want to wait to see the final product.
Would there be Cabinet resignations?
Let us presume for a moment that this is controversial. A question that follows is: would any Cabinet members resign and, if they did, would that leadership challenge follow? (This line of thinking shows the importance to May of getting Raab’s assent to any deal. If she doesn’t have it, she won’t have his backing in putting one to Cabinet. Which suggests that she is now dependent on his agreement to be able to do so.)
The Prime Minister survived the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson without then facing a confidence ballot. The consensus expectation is that she would similarly be able to withstand the loss of Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and perhaps Penny Mordaunt – and that Liam Fox and Chris Grayling are unlikely to quit.
Michael Gove going would be more problematic. So would be the departures of Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt. But these are unlikely. In particular, Cabinet members whose departments would be in the front line in the event of No Deal have an obvious incentive to stay on. These are Gove (agricultural products at the border), Grayling (transport and prospective queues, particularly in Kent), Javid (border control and security arrangements) – and Matt Hancock (medical supplies), though there is no realistic prospect of the pragmatic last resigning.
What would be the role of the Attorney General?
The arrival in Cabinet of Geoffrey Cox, with his track record as a Brexiteer and authority as a senior QC, has transformed its balance of debate. The Attorney General played a central role in demolishing a set of Robbins/Weyand proposals in the middle of last month. He has turned up to a meeting of Andrea Leadsom’s pro-Leave pizza club of Ministers.
Cox is surely no Peter Goldsmith – prepared to issue different drafts of guidance, each closer to the view that the Prime Minister wants. There might well be a row about Cabinet members’ access to his written advice, which will be provided to May. Number Ten will be nervous about it leaking if distributed. Labour, other opposition parties and many Conservative MPs will demand that Parliament sees it. We want it to be published.
A conventional expectation is that Cox would make an oral presentation to Cabinet. Is it conceivable that he could stress the distinction between his legal responsibilities and his political views? (“Well, Prime Minister: as a lawyer, my view is that under these proposals we could not escape the backstop. But as a politician, my take is that they are preferable to No Deal.”)
If the Cabinet approves a deal, what happens next?
The Commons would then undertake its “meaningful vote”. Today, we glance only at one aspect of it. Let us suppose for a moment that Brexiteers are unhappy with a deal agreed by Cabinet, and that perhaps there have been resignations. We stress that neither of these will necessarily be the case in the event of a deal.
Would, say, ERG members immediately flood Graham Brady will a mass of letters demanding a confidence vote – thus risking blame for alone seeking to bring down May at a crucial moment in the Brexit drama?
Or would they wait for the meaningful vote, join MPs from other parties in opposing the Prime Minister’s plan – and hope that, if it went down, she would then resign? This would arguably leave them less directly exposed to criticism from fellow Tories. We don’t know what the answer is, but the question is worth asking.