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Friday 6 July 2018

Crunch meeting at Chequers: Cabinet ministers will gather at the prime minister’s grace and favour residence today for a marathon Brexit meeting set to seal the nation’s fate. Theresa May has this week been busily trying to get buy-in from traditional European allies before she inevitably forces her muddled third-way proposal through Cabinet.

May’s meeting with Angela Merkel yielded nothing however, with the German Chancellor complaining, “the clock is ticking, It is very important to see what the British government decides in the coming days.”

Indeed it is, following the conclusion of today’s meeting, the government will publish a white paper setting out its trade position. Thereafter, only six weeks of negotiating time remain to wrap up a “political agreement” on the future economic relationship.

Westmonster this morning urges the few Leavers in the Cabinet – May has invited the full coterie to Chequers, rather than her more balanced inner Brexit “War” committee – to oppose the plans and stand up for independence.

Quite right, the third way will make for grim reading. Details remain sketchy, but it is abundantly clear Britain will remain tied to the EU’s punishing regulatory machine. Notes distributed to ministers in advance of the summit, seen by the Spectator state the “The UK should maintain a common rulebook for all goods including agri-food,” and Britain will make “an upfront choice to commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation with EU rules on goods.”

Brexiteers will be in a position to push for a more autonomous relationship, whereby Britain meets EU standards without adopting reams of its regulations. They should push hard. Not least because a tight relationship will give the EU ample ammunition to demand continued oversight by the European Court of Justice.

The lesser option is no better. EFTA, three of the four members of which are in the Single Market has a court for this very purpose, mandated to apply EU case law.

All the bad news seeping out of Westminster this week, along with the inevitable heartbreak to come at around 11.30 tonight when today’s summit concludes, points to the disastrous commitments made by the PM in December, when she promised the world to Brussels in order to secure a disastrously lopsided withdrawal agreement.

“The United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union,” states the document in paragraph 49.

The commitment is framed in the context of Northern Ireland and is predicated on the “absence of agreed solutions,” but as expected, in the intervening seven months May’s administration has got nowhere in finding a solution.

As Brexiteers know all too well, a conventional “Canada-style” trade deal sits begging to be negotiated with Brussels, but May has also promised no border checks on the island of Ireland.

“Not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word Unionist is very important to me,” were Mrs May’s opening words of intent upon securing leadership of the Conservative Party by default, almost two years ago to the day.

As far as the prime minister is concerned, a no-deal outcome is out of the question, unless it is forced upon by Brussels, and so is a conventional trade deal. Madness when you consider she is armed with a democratic mandate, the biggest in British history, to do the exact opposite. Furthermore, a trade deal with the EU is a notch up on what most of the world has. Just because we are currently in the Single Market doesn’t mean our leaders are entitled lose perspective on what kind of economy Britain should have, namely an independent one: Australia, the United States, Japan to name a few.

This brings us onto trade. By the looks of the regulatory alignment warning, today’s proposal will borrow from the goods only Single Market arrangement doing the rounds in recent weeks and the ridiculous New Customs Partnership – the technology for which, doesn’t even yet exist, and the EU will not accept. Services however, which account for 80% of our economy, will according to the briefing notes, be under a “different arrangement”.

“where it is our interests to have regulatory flexibility, recognising this will result in reduced market access.”

Last night Liam Fox marched to Downing Street after a meeting with fellow Brexiteers at the Foreign Office. He was given “personal assurances” by the prime minister that the UK will once again exercise an independent trade policy under his leadership. This points to the New Customs Partnership lying at the centre of Number 10’s plans. However, Fox can rule out any prospect of a meaningful deal with the US. Washington has made no secret of the need for Britain to re-regulate her economy in order to facilitate a trade agreement.

The gambit is obvious. We are told, the proposal will be big on detail, but that does not mask its essential incoherence. May will oblige her ministers to sign up, knowing full well it will serve only as an opening salvo in the trade talks. Brussels will reject it, the British government will then have no choice but to revert to the dreaded backstop of continued membership of the Customs Union, with agri-food thrown in – hence the preparations for regulatory alignment for these goods. The groundwork is being laid.

Which is why the minority of leavers who met last night to discuss strategy and will be present at today’s session, Fox, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey must, as today’s Times claims, press upon the prime minister the necessity of a Canada deal.

Encouragingly, Gove is reported to have originally intended to side with his boss until he learnt of the caucus of Brexiteer Cabinet ministers looking to tell Mrs May her plans are plain wrong. They are backed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who warned today’s proposal is “not Brexit” and would reduce the nation to a “vassal state” of the EU. He is not wrong.

The question is, how hard will they push? One grave concern is that Johnson will repeat his Heathrow trick. He defended his decision not to vote against a third runway, in spite of promises of lying down in front of the bulldozers, because it would have been ineffectual. What is to say, he and his fellow Leavers will not make the same case.

The EU Customs Bill will return to the Commons shortly after the White Paper’s release. These so-called Brexiteers could easily argue that they need to remain in Cabinet to stave off another death by a thousand amendments. This would be nonsense of course, they were not critical in rescuing the Withdrawal Bill. Nevertheless, the argument will stick with a pro-Remain media.

If they want to serve their country, they should resign.