Tory MPs and ministers have consistently under-estimated their leader. What Theresa May achieved at Chequers yesterday was extraordinary. She persuaded her cabinet to sign up for a Brexit plan that drives a coach and horses through what the Brexiters in her team – especially Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – said Brexit was all about, during that historic referendum campaign.
What is more, at Chequers yesterday, Gove was a cheerleader for a plan that would enshrine in treaty what is supposedly anathema to his Brexit cause – that the UK now and forever would be subject to European Union rules and regulations governing the quality and safety of the goods we make and buy and also the food we produce and consume.
As for Johnson, he harrumphed for six minutes but did not dissent from the clear consensus that there was no superior alternative to what the PM wants. Even Andrea Leadsom, who was expected to be the most truculent, expressed some disappointment in her opening remarks but then showed she was on board. As for the reluctant Remainer turned ardent Brexiter, Sajid Javid, he concentrated on obtaining a guarantee from the PM that she would not be offering preferential rights to live and work here to EU citizens. To the disappointment, of Philip Hammond and Greg Clark, he thinks he got that. We’ll see. If he’s right, then access to the EU for the service companies that dominate our economy will inevitably be more circumscribed than those companies would like.
So, why did Johnson, Leadsom, Gove and the rest capitulate? It is largely due to the analysis they were given right at the start of the meeting – about the realistic alternatives to May’s plan. There were three. One is the preferred option of the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, which is an enhanced version of Canada’s trade deal with the EU, a so-called 'CETA plus' deal. This was ruled out because it would not solve the make-or-break problem of how to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Another is staying in the European Single Market via membership for the European Economic Area, the 'Norway option' - favoured by many Labour and Tory MPs. This was rejected because it was seen as too blatant a repudiation of why British people voted for Brexit, in that it would carry with it a continued obligation to allow EU citizens to settle here. The final option was a no-deal withdrawal from the EU, which some members of the Cabinet, privately, would quite like – but which all acknowledge would bring substantial risks to the UK’s prosperity. In other words, the Cabinet was presented with nowhere to go but the May plan, and had no credible alternative.
She won; Johnson, Gove and the Brexiters were humiliated. The minister who may feel most bruised however is Davis, in that he has long championed Ceta Plus, and he is – after all – supposed to be in charge of Brexit. He faces a genuinely difficult personal dilemma: quit on principle, or stay in post to help deliver his life’s ambition of steering us out of the EU (even if that exit must feel to him now more cosmetic than fundamental)?
Davis will query – as does the whole Cabinet – whether she can now sell to the EU a plan that also drives a coach and horses through their articles of faith, most importantly that no country can in effect be part of the single market for goods and food, without also allowing freedom of movement for services, capital and people, and without paying real cash to the EU for that access. May told the Cabinet that she will go above the head of the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, direct to Merkel, Macron and the EU’s government heads to secure what she wants. And she believes, on the basis of her preliminary talks with them that they’ll ultimately give her what she wants.
The Cabinet gave her the benefit of the doubt. But ministers have also taken out an insurance policy, just in case she is over-reaching. They received a commitment that they would meet weekly to receive updates on contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. And if Jacob Rees-Mogg and the ardent Brexiter MPs don’t this week round on May, accuse her of betraying Britain and launch a coup, it is partly because – paradoxically – they are counting on Macron and Merkel to deliver the abrupt rupture between EU and UK they so urgently desire (though depending on where Labour lands on all this in coming weeks, they also see the danger for them that the rest of the EU may try to turn the UK Norwegian, metaphorically speaking).
Robert Peston is political editor of ITV News. This article also appears on his Facebook page.