Theresa May kicks Brexit can down the road

Theresa May, Michel Barnier and David Davis Image copyright Number 10

Another gathering in Downing Street has come and gone, imagined at one point to be a "crunch meeting" at which Cabinet colleagues might thrash out their differences on the destination of Brexit.

In fact, it was nothing of the kind. The only crunching to be seen or heard was the gentle crump of the metaphorical tin can labelled "Britain's future after Brexit" being kicked, unopened, further down the road.

Did we seriously expect anything else?

Boris Johnson, and Brexiteers like him, believe that Brexit opens up a world of new opportunities.

Former Remainers including Phillip Hammond, the chancellor, are believed to quietly fear it could usher in an era of national decline.

There is no reconciling these views.

Secret dreams?

So ministers on both sides, and colleagues in between, have chosen with lesser or greater enthusiasm to embrace the government's stated ambition to pursue the goal of "frictionless trade" with the EU, with few if any tariff or non-tariff barriers, while simultaneously shuffling off the obligations that go with membership of the EU customs union and single market.

No matter that the chancellor is suspected by many in Whitehall and at Westminster to fear this is unachievable, and to secretly nurse the dream of an eventual rethink, or perhaps the hope that a Brexit transition might somehow go on and on.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Amber Rudd says the cabinet are more united than we think

Never mind that some senior Brexiteers are known to be quietly enthusiastic about the possibility of Brexit negotiations ending with no-deal with the EU, and with Britain trading in future on World Trade Organisation rules, until agreements can be struck with nations around the world.

For now, the goal of a future in which the UK both has its cake and eats it serves as the fulcrum upon which two opposing views can balance.

When Amber Rudd told Brexiteers via the BBC's Andrew Marr Show the cabinet was "more united than they think", this was surely what she meant.

Brussels diktats

Meanwhile, the paper published by HMRC officials last August set out practical means of managing cross-border trade, while leaving the tricky business of striking a trade deal with the EU, or failing to do so, to their political masters.

The practical talk in cabinet, I'm told by one senior minister, encompassed the UK's future relationship with the EU on the point of alignment of trading rules and regulations.

There's broad agreement among ministers that Britain should set its own rules and standards, and not automatically accept diktats from Brussels.

Yet it is also recognised that trade with Europe requires compliance with the standards enshrined in those same rules.

The distinction may seem rather Jesuitical to some.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Boris Johnson believes Brexit can open up new opportunities

But to Brexit enthusiasts, and to 10 Downing Street, it is a matter of sovereignty and goes to the heart of Brexit as an idea.

British and EU trading standards are perfectly aligned now, it's argued, and there's no intention on the British side to lower those standards, still less to go down the route to what Brussels calls "social dumping" and reduce workers' rights.

'Starting position'

Arguments over any divergence in regulations could go to some form of arbitration.

"The Treasury just wants to stay in or close to a customs union," said a minister, "but they won't win that one".

And what about the European Commission?

"They just want to stay in control."

So, the moment of decision awaits further down the road.

Brexiteer ministers insist talk in Brussels that the UK cannot cherry pick, cannot enjoy free access to markets without accepting free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court is merely a negotiating position.

"It's the starting position, not the end. Michel Barnier (the EU's chief negotiator) does not speak for the entire European Union...can you imagine the Netherlands wanting to put up barriers?"

'Trust me'

Theresa May told MPs at Prime Minister's Questions: "As I have said right from the very beginning, we will hear noises off and all sorts of things being said about positions, but what matters is the position that we take in the negotiations as we sit down to negotiate the best deal.

"We have shown that we can do that; we did it December and we will do it again."

In other words, "trust me".

But the pressure on Mrs May to mark out her own preferred destination keeps mounting - especially from Brexiteers who'd like her to tell Brussels to accept Britain's terms or live with no deal at all.

The moment she does so the Cold War in her party between rival ministers and rival factions would likely warm up very quickly.

There is also a more urgent problem: securing a Brexit transition at the European Council on 22 March.

Without an agreement, Britain will suddenly be (forgive the mixed metaphor) looking down the barrel of a Brexit cliff-edge.

'Meaningful vote'

Fears among business leaders would reach a new pitch, threatening investment and jobs. And the government would need to prepare itself, and warn the businesses it has been trying to reassure that a hard Brexit was at least a real possibility.

Obstacles to a transition deal have not yet been resolved.

They include the rights of EU migrants who arrive in Britain after the transition. There is still no clear or detailed answer to the problem of the border on the island of Ireland.

Downing Street says trading regimes will remain aligned. Dublin is widely believed to want to push the UK to maintain a customs union. Any new, or old obstacle, could appear, or reappear. Who knows? Gibraltar?

Ultimately, the mythical tin can marked "Britain's future after Brexit" must come home to roost (to mix another metaphor).

In the Autumn, clear positions will be required on both the UK and EU side if there is to be a document - at the very least setting out "heads of agreement" on the future relationship.

At that point Parliament will have its say.

A "meaningful vote" is promised. On its outcome rests Brexit, Tory unity, Theresa May's future and conceivably that of the government.

A cabinet minister observed recently that the prime minister seemed to be privately philosophical about the state of her premiership and her government: "She said 'it goes with the territory'"

Perhaps, in another life, Mrs May commanded a bomb disposal unit.

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