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 this evening, with a full Cabinet meeting due tomorrow, it is possible that there are reassuring answers to all these questions.
But it is also possible 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 very unlikely that May has called that formal meeting of all Cabinet members tomorrow on the same basis that she previously called informal meetings of some of them – in other words, to test the water.
It looks as though she has summoned it to recommend whatever has been agreed by Sabine Weyand and Olly Robbins. Otherwise she would scarcely be calling some of its members one by one as we write.
“I can rely on your support tomorrow, can’t I, Dominic?” (Or Penny; or Michael; or Penny: please insert a name of your choosing at will.) That is surely the purpose of these individual meetings – to square tomorrow’s Cabinet before it happens.
One can scarcely blame May for the attempt. But one would surely blame any Minister with doubts about whatever is being proposed – or even merely questions – if he or she does not answer in roughly the following terms.
“Naturally, Prime Minister, I want to support you. But, obviously, I can’t make any commitments until I have made a full timely study of the text of the proposal and the Attorney-General’s legal advice about it – 500 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement alone, I’m told.
“I don’t see how any of us will be in a position to do that on the basis of a few hours’ reading tomorrow morning and a Cabinet meeting tomorrow afternoon – because that doesn’t give us enough time to undertake that full timely study.”
If May then proposes, at tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting, that it immediately approve the draft deal, such Ministers would 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. Tomorrow may be the last chance that its members have to do so.