Katy Balls

Cabinet back Theresa May’s soft Brexit plan. How will Brussels respond?

Cabinet back Theresa May's soft Brexit plan. How will Brussels respond?
Text settings

Theresa May's Cabinet away day is finally over and the Prime Minister can go to sleep safe in the knowledge that there have been no resignations... yet. In a No 10 statement this evening, May said the Cabinet had agreed its collective position for the Brexit negotiations – for a common rule book on industrial goods and agricultural products. This means the UK would have to in effect follow EU rules in these sectors:

‘Our proposal will create a U.K. - EU free trade area which establishes a common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products. This maintains high standards in these areas, but we will also ensure that no new changes in the future take place without the approval of our Parliament.

‘As a result, we avoid friction in terms of trade, which protects jobs and livelihoods, as well as meeting our commitments in Northern Ireland. We have also agreed a new business-friendly customs model with freedom to strike new trade deals around the world.'

Only the loose details of May's third way are known for now with more to be fleshed out next week when the government publishes its white paper. However, it all seems to chime with reports in the week – including from James in this week's Spectator – of a soft Brexit with close relations with the EU. May's Brexit blue print appears to concede a role for the ECJ and it makes the idea of forging free trade deals across the globe more difficult to bring about. If the UK is in a single market on goods that will effect what it can offer in competitive trade deals. It follows that tonight some Brexiteers have been quick to see red and call betrayal on Brexiteer ministers for playing ball. The Brexit No 10 is proposing is far away from what Vote Leave pitched.

So far, the only account we have had is No 10's so the picture may change as the weekend goes on and ministers are reunited with their mobile phones. The big question, however, is: what will Brussels say in response? Will the EU even play along? Michel Barnier has repeatedly ruled out a bespoke deal and while May's plans may bear some resemblance to the Swiss model, that model is loathed by Brussels. The Brexiteers' main issue with May's plan was that it was unworkable – it only takes a couple of diplomats to say this and the picture changes drastically.

The fear in Brexiteer circles is that May has laid all her cards on the table and has little left to give away. By the time the negotiations are through her plans could well be even softer – potentially the Norway model plus a customs union for good measure. Michel Barnier – the EU chief negotiator – has tweeted some warm words this evening. But given that some think this is all part of a plot to lure the UK into a trap – like a lobster in a pot – to a point where it has to take concessions as there is no other viable option, it will do little to ease Brexiteer nerves:


No 10 say that collective responsibility has been restored – and there will be no sparring over Brexit. If, as the negotiations go on, May's bespoke proposals are pushed to the side and things like freedom of movement are brought back into play it's hard to see how this Brexit unity can hold. The only real saving grace for Brexiteers is that the Cabinet did agree to 'step up preparations' for the full range of scenarios that could follow – including no deal. Right now, it would be foolish to rule that possibility out.