Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, carries a document folder as she leaves number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

U.K.'s May Heads Into Cabinet War Over Her Brexit Plan

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a decisive battle with her Cabinet over the U.K.’s future ties to the European Union, in a showdown that will either see the prime minister emerge emboldened or throw Brexit talks into disarray.

May’s top team of ministers is due to finalize the U.K. blueprint for its partnership with the EU at meeting in her Chequers country residence Friday, but a group of seven pro-Brexit ministers are pushing for her to tear up her plans.

U.K.'s May Heads Into Cabinet War Over Her Brexit Plan

In an extraordinary move, the rebel cabinet ministers met in Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s offices late Thursday to coordinate their opposition to the premier’s policy on linking tariffs and goods regulations closely to those of the EU.

For her part, May is also ready for a fight, one of her senior allies said.

“We have a great opportunity –- and a duty,” May said ahead Friday’s cabinet meeting. “This is about agreeing an approach that delivers decisively on the verdict of the British people -– an approach that is in the best interests of the U.K. and the EU, and crucially, one that commands the support of the public and Parliament.”

The Times reported that the Cabinet will spend the morning discussing what the EU might actually agree to, and the afternoon what they should ask for in light of that. The early evening will be spent discussing plans for what happens if there is no deal, and then they’ll talk about how to communicate what they’ve agreed, before leaving around 10 p.m. Only at this point will they be given back their phones, which they will have to hand in on arrival.

Betrayal

The clash comes at a critical moment in the Brexit process. The EU is pushing May to produce a workable plan for the future trade relationship, warning that time is running out for reaching an agreement before exit day in March.

May has summoned her cabinet to the all-day meeting at Chequers with the goal of securing their support for an overarching plan -- in the form of a government “white paper” -- to take to the EU.

Brexit backers in May’s top team are worried that she’s betraying their vision of a clean split with the bloc that will enable Britain to strike free trade deals with countries around the world such as the U.S.

The Brexit backers object to May’s plan for a customs deal in which the U.K. collects the EU’s tariffs, and a trade regime that binds British regulations on goods and agri-food to European rules forever.

“If true, this would be a complete breach of Theresa May’s manifesto commitment” to leave the EU single market, customs union and the bloc’s court, said Owen Paterson, a former Cabinet minister and Brexit campaigner. “We would be out of Europe but still run by Europe.”

U.K.'s May Heads Into Cabinet War Over Her Brexit Plan

The seven “Brexiteer” ministers held constructive talks in Johnson’s office and want to work through their differences with May, according to people familiar with the discussions. As well as Johnson, the ministers present in the Foreign Office included Brexit Secretary David Davis, Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, and Michael Gove, the environment secretary, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Fox left the meeting of Brexiteers for private talks with May over a drink in her apartment in Downing Street at which he raised a number of issues. She gave him a personal assurance that Brexit would allow Britain to strike free trade deals around the world, a person familiar with the matter said. Fox now expects May on Friday to clarify the points they discussed.

Johnson meanwhile went to meet his old university friend -- and Brexit adversary -- former Prime Minister David Cameron. It was Johnson’s decision to campaign to leave the EU that helped win the campaign and bring about Cameron’s downfall. The Times reported that Johnson had been persuaded by Cameron that May’s plan was the only one Parliament would back. However, a person familiar with the encounter said that while Johnson didn’t give the impression he would resign, "Boris is Boris," and the situation remains fluid.

Merkel Unhappy Too

Pro-Brexit ministers are angry that May’s aides devised the plan without consulting senior Cabinet members who were supposed to be working on a customs solution. It has also received a chilly response from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. The EU has hinted it won’t accept the plan. Even so, getting her Cabinet to agree to it would be a victory of sorts as she traces a long, slow path toward her version of Brexit.

A draft of May’s proposal was leaked Thursday, including a line saying it wouldn’t “allow the U.K. to accommodate a likely ask from the U.S. in a future trade deal.” That upset the “Brexiteers” in the cabinet who have made an American trade deal one of their key aims.

U.K.'s May Heads Into Cabinet War Over Her Brexit Plan

While May’s delay in making a decision on Brexit has been characterized as weakness, and left some in her government wondering if she would ever make a decision, a senior minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this had been a strategy aimed at leading her internal opponents to the same conclusion as she had come to regarding the viable options.

At Chequers, the minister said, she was prepared to push for what she wanted, even if it meant upsetting people. It’s a political convention in the U.K. that ministers who feel they cannot sign up to government policy are expected to resign from the cabinet.

David Lidington, May’s effective deputy, told the BBC on Friday morning that he didn’t expect that outcome. “All my Cabinet colleagues are going to Chequers wanting to come up with a deal,” he said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.