As this month began, we set five tests for any Brexit deal that Theresa May might recommend to her Cabinet members. They were as follows:
- Would it hive off Northern Ireland? Will there be either an an exit date or a unilateral escape mechanism from the backstop?
- Does it threaten to break up the Union? If there isn’t, and Northern Ireland is effectively to be kept in the Single Market, won’t that boost the SNP’s campaign for Scottish independence – and the break-up of the Union?
- Would it trap the country in a customs union? If Great Britain is to be put into a parallel customs union, will there be either an exit date or a unilateral escape mechanism from it?
- Does it hand over money for nothing? Since a future trade deal will be covered by an unenforceable political declaration – not the Withdrawal Agreement – what safeguards are there against shelling out £40 billion for nothing?
- Chequers or Canada? Given that the political declaration is likely to be written in vague, Cheqada terms, which future does it really point to – Chequers or Canada?
In the wake of the Prime Minister summoning Cabinet members for one-to-one meetings yesterday evening, with a full Cabinet meeting due this afternoon, it is possible that there are reassuring answers to all these questions.
But it is more likely that, as we wrote then, the proposed deal would wreck the prospect of meaningful trade deals, hand over £40 billion for no bankable gain, and potentially threaten the break-up of the UK.
It is early days to draw definitive conclusions either way about the draft agreement’s contents, but it is clear that the planned settlements for Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be different.
And Sabine Weyand suggested to a meeting of EU ambassadors yesterday that the deal would effectively keep the whole UK in the Customs Union, force EU access to our fishing waters, and align us to Single Market rules.
Such a settlement would breach the Conservative Manifesto commitments to leave the Customs Union, and arguably the Single Market too – and threaten the survival of the Government if the DUP withdrew all support, as it is poised to do.
At any rate, it is evident that the Prime Minister is no longer driven by the belief, in the famous phrase from her Lancaster House speech, that “No Deal is better than a Bad Deal”. Evidently, she is desparate for a settlement.
In a sense, then, one can scarcely blame her for seeking to bounce the Cabinet today. Its members are being given this morning only to examine 500 or so pages of the Withdrawal Agreement alone before it meets this afternoon.
It will be impossible for them to undertake the full timely study of this text, plus legal advice about it, within this brief time-frame – let alone to get independent advice about what it all adds up to.
It follows that when May proposes the immediate approval of the draft deal today, Brexiteering Ministers have no option but to seek to persuade the Cabinet as a whole to withold that approval – even if that means missing the November deadline for a summit.
On our count, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Esther McVey, Natalie Evans, David Mundell and Penny Mordaunt have all variously asked questions or expressed doubts about where the deal is going.
Add Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom and Geoffrey Cox to the list – all these are entitled to attend Cabinet, though they are not full members – and one reaches 14 of a total of 29, just under half.
Of course, it is the Prime Minister who takes the voices and shapes Cabinet minutes: its members don’t do anything so crude as cast votes. In short, if she is determined to make the proposed deal the basis for a summit, Cabinet members aren’t well placed to stop her.
Which leaves only one course open to them. If those resistant to approving any deal on the basis of a single meeting aren’t heeded, they will have no practicable alternative but to resign.
Our article of a month ago was headed: the Cabinet must stand ready to take back control. Today may be the last chance that its members have to do so.