(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May sought to bind internal critics into publicly supporting her Brexit policy, sending ministers out to make the case for it in newspapers and on the airwaves, as opponents on both sides began to point out shortfalls with her proposals.
Among the biggest Brexit-supporting names in the Cabinet, Trade Secretary Liam Fox put his name to a newspaper article backing the plan, and Environment Secretary Michael Gove defended the agreement in a television interview. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson meanwhile let it be known that he planned to stay in the Cabinet because he felt this would be the best platform from which to fight moves to soften the government’s position further.
“I’m a realist,” Gove told the BBC, admitting that he didn’t like everything about May’s plan. “And one of the things about politics is that you mustn’t, you shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. And one of the things about this compromise is that it unites the Cabinet.”
That Cabinet unity caught out Conservative lawmakers who are pushing for maximum distance from the European Union after Britain leaves. When details of May’s plan appeared last week, they were confident it would be shot down by Gove, Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. In the end, though, Johnson is reported to have described it at the meeting as a “turd,” and all were convinced there was no other workable proposal.
The prime minister now faces the task of winning over, or at least subduing, the rest of her Conservative Party. On Saturday night, the hardest-line Brexiteers were circulating a briefing paper that warned she was condemning them to a “Black Hole Brexit” -- subject to EU rules but unable to influence them.
“There are a lot of questions in here, there is a lot of unhappiness,” Bill Cash, who has been fighting to get Britain out of the EU for decades, told Sky News. “The question is how do you leave and is this going to be a proper Brexit? There will be a massive discussion about all this.”
While Cash said that he personally wasn’t yet calling for a vote of confidence in May as Tory leader, there were reports in the Sunday Times and by ITV that other lawmakers are. This is risky for May, but also for her critics. It takes letters from 48 Conservative lawmakers to trigger a confidence vote in May, but 159 -- half the parliamentary party -- to win. May is betting that most of her lawmakers are tired of years of division over the EU and want a position to unite behind.
Gove told the BBC her plan was a compromise. “We have an approach which ends free movement, which keeps us out of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy, which ends the jurisdiction of the European Court,” he said. “We achieve all of the things that we campaigned for in order to ensure that we could leave the EU, but we also do so in a way which respects some of the wishes and some of the concerns of those of my colleagues who voted Remain.”
May’s plan hasn’t just been criticized by those who want a harder Brexit. On Sunday Richard Reed, an entrepreneur and founder of Innocent Ltd., organised a letter signed by 100 business leaders calling for Britain to stay in a customs union with the EU. “The cost, complexity and bureaucracy created by crashing out of the customs union and adopting alternative arrangements is the last thing that our businesses need as we seek to grow and employ more people,” the letter said. “It would amount to the British government tying the hands of British business.”
Thilo Brodtmann, managing director of Germany’s business lobby group the VDMA, also called for a customs union, and said May’s customs proposal “would be very bureaucratic and would open the door to customs fraud.” He said he believed the EU would reject it.
Keir Starmer, Brexit spokesman for the U.K. opposition Labour Party, likewise dismissed May’s plan. “It’s got fudge written all over it,” he told the BBC. “It’s unworkable.”
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