Katy Balls

Revealed: the Cabinet bust-up over May’s soft Brexit plan

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When Theresa May stood in 10 Downing Street earlier this evening and announced that she would try and break the Brexit logjam by liaising with Jeremy Corbyn, she gave the impression of speaking with cabinet backing. However, the full story is now emerging. In a stormy seven-hour meeting, minister after minister protested at her proposal to use Labour votes for a softer Brexit (potentially a customs union) in order to pass a deal. As many as 14 ministers said they’d rather keep no deal on the table. Around ten ministers actively supported May's final plan.

I understand the point where the tide turned in May’s favour came after eight ministers had spoken in favour of no deal. At this point, both Michael Gove and Geoffrey Cox spoke in defence of compromise and doing a deal with Corbyn. The Environment Secretary said his uncompromising colleagues needed to deal with facts – not how they wanted to see the world. The Attorney General also spoke of the need for compromise. One minister credits their interventions as the ‘most significant’ and ‘turning the tide’ towards soft Brexit plan.

However Cox also managed to ruffle feathers the Remain side. After one of Claire Perry’s more pugnacious comments (making the point that everyone needed to get on board with a soft Brexit) Cox suggested she simmer down. Perry did not take kindly to the comment and accused him of ‘mansplaining’. He apologised. However, she did accidentally refer to him as ‘Robert’ which didn’t land particularly well. Perry also referred to those leaning to a harder Brexit as 'righty-tighty’, not the most diplomatic choice of words.

There is now fury amongst Brexiteers, who say that May is acting in defiance of her party and even her cabinet to form a coalition, of sorts, with Corbyn. Although no-one at the meeting threatened to resigned, one minister says they wouldn't rule out a cabinet resignation in the next 24 hours. Andrea Leadsom and Gavin Williamson were the most visibly angry and opposed to the plan. Williamson made the point that she should not pick opposition over party. Chief Secretary Liz Truss was also passionately opposed to those arguing for a softer Brexit, especially when justified by fear of the impact of no-deal. She called for an economic and social analysis on the impact of remaining in the EU. To abandon Brexit would come with its own downsides – such as the risks of a Corbyn government if the UK doesn’t leave and a general election follows. Philip Hammond was dismissive of the idea.

The Remain-leaning ministers – Rudd, Gauke and Hammond – had a victory this evening. However, there is a concern among this faction that May will come under huge pressure to change course. Judging by the anger so far tonight, they’re not wrong.

Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor. She is also a columnist for the i paper.

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