UK PM Theresa May imposed her vision of a soft Brexit on her divided Cabinet, pleasing business with a plan to keep close trade ties to the European Union and telling insolent ministers to get behind her or resign.
Her plan, which would set up a free-trade area with the EU and mirror EU rules for goods and food, goes against much of what pro-Brexit Cabinet ministers have long demanded.
But after months of threatened resignations or leadership challenges, none have so far materialised.
It’s a victory for May, long written off as a weak and indecisive leader with no authority, and a win for business, which has stepped up its lobbying efforts in recent weeks, with household names warning of the dire consequences of a messy divorce. Business lobbies welcomed her plan.
So did chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, though he still needs to look at the details, many of which he won’t like. But there were messages in the Cabinet’s statement aimed directly at unblocking talks, which have been all but stalled since March and are meant to be wrapped up in just 15 weeks.
“This proposal should allow both parties to resolve the remaining Withdrawal Agreement issues,” according to the statement, which was issued by May’s office while her ministers were still locked up at her country house without their phones.
May is not out of the woods. But even Jacob Rees-Mogg, the outspoken Brexit hardliner who commands enough support in Parliament to trigger a leadership challenge, reserved judgment the morning after.
Brexit-backing lawmakers expressed their frustration in WhatsApp chats, but none has yet come forward to call for May to go.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith on WhatsApp said: “I want to know what the Brexit Cabinet ministers were doing.” Another pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker, Andrew Bridgen, told Bloomberg: “This looks like a weak form of Brexit even before the EU negotiators weaken it further.”
May’s plan keeps the UK tied to EU rules for goods, but able to diverge on services — and the Cabinet acknowledges that will mean financial services won’t have the same access as before. It appears to have dropped an earlier proposal for “mutual recognition” of regulation for financial services.
The EU has objected already to partial access to its single market, saying the UK can’t pick and choose the bits it wants. It’s all or nothing.
May’s plan also leaves the door open to some flexibility on EU immigration but stops far short of the EU’s demand that free movement of people is a non-negotiable aspect of single market membership.
Her proposal on goods also aims to solve the problem of the Irish border, which remains the major sticking point in talks with Brussels.
The EU demands a backstop, or guarantee, that no hard border will emerge on the island after the divorce but neither side can agree on how that last-resort clause should be worded.