(Bloomberg) -- Over a private drink alone with Theresa May on Thursday night, life-long Brexit campaigner Liam Fox wanted an answer.
For the international trade secretary, the question was as painful as it was vital: will there be any point doing his job if May’s blueprint for Brexit stops him striking trade deals around the world?
“Liam,” the prime minister began, as they sat together in her Downing Street apartment. “You will be able to operate an independent trade policy.” Although Fox didn’t threaten to quit, he now expects May to go public with her private assurances. He’s hoping she will do so when she presents her Brexit plan to her fractious Cabinet on Friday at a meeting that could decide May’s future and that of Britain’s relationship with Europe.
Fox was raising his own fears but he was also speaking for dozens of euroskeptics inside the ruling Conservative Party. These pro-Brexit campaigners -- many of whom have made careers out of arguing against the European Union -- are increasingly worried that the prime minister is selling them out. If she does, some could quit the government or even try to oust her.
The prime minister is about to unveil in more detail than ever the kind of divorce from the EU she thinks the country, Parliament and Brussels will accept, with a policy document called a “white paper.” As pressures mounts from business to protect their interests, May’s proposal seeks to maintain economic ties with the bloc. To some Brexiteers, her plan looks like no kind of Brexit at all.
May has had showdown meetings before, but with just four months to go until an exit deal is meant to be signed, her aides regard this one as the crunch moment. As ministers gathered to plot late on Thursday, May sent out the message that she is ready to fight.
Based on private interviews with senior ministers and officials inside May’s government, this article traces the tensions between the premier and the euroskeptics in her team. It’s an uneasy truce that constantly threatens to break down, and could one day overwhelm May, throwing her out of office and pushing the country into chaos.
The Brexiteers thought they’d won their war in the 2016 referendum vote to end EU membership and looked forward to a global future for Britain as a free-trading nation, unfettered by Brussels. They have their sights on a trade deal with the U.S. -- and that will be made more difficult if May keeps ties tight with the EU.
They thought they’d won in January last year when May announced her plans for a hard Brexit -- leaving the single market, the European Court of Justice and customs union. And they were convinced of their victory when she confirmed those plans in the manifesto for the election she called in 2017, expecting that a landslide win would help her deliver.
But in the 13 months since May lost her Parliamentary majority in that shock vote, she’s been inching away from the Brexit purists’ dream. Her aides believe that result -- a hung parliament and a humiliated prime minister -- means May has no mandate for an extreme version of Brexit. She has to keep onside the faction of her party that is siding with business in its attempts to keep close ties to Europe.
May herself supported staying in the EU in the referendum and still can’t say that she’d back Brexit in another vote now.
Among the red lines May has blurred is her pledge to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice -- a symbol of lost sovereignty for the Brexit campaigners. She’s happy for EU judges to have a role overseeing the bloc’s regulators in areas such as chemicals, aviation and medicines, in exchange for the U.K. gaining access to the European market.
For Brexiteers, May is perilously close to ditching two more cherished red lines: Leaving the EU single market rulebook and quitting the customs union, which sets a common external tariff applied across all member states. There’s even talk that she’ll fail to deliver on her promise to end unlimited migration from the EU.
No-one is more closely linked to Brexit in Britain than Boris Johnson, who was the figurehead of the Vote Leave campaign in 2016. Now foreign secretary, he has been especially outspoken in his criticism of May. He called an earlier draft of May’s customs plan “crazy” and was convinced that the Brexiteers had successfully killed it off.
But now it’s back in a slightly modified form and Johnson is running out of
patience. He believes May has failed to make fast enough progress on delivering Brexit in the two years since his referendum campaign triumphed.
When his unease gets too much, Johnson meets May for “heart-to-hearts” in Downing Street. Like Fox, he voices his anxiety about May’s direction of travel. The prime minister’s response is always the same: “Trust me,” she says. Yet Johnson’s trust is conditional on May delivering what she promises, and Friday’s Cabinet summit will spell out her position in black and white. It was Johnson who hosted a meeting of seven Brexiteers late on Thursday to plot their response to May.
While Johnson thinks May is doing her best, he worries she could end up boxed into agreeing to a customs union with the EU. That would leave Britain adopting rules over which it has no say in making, and unable to negotiate independent trade deals with other countries because it’s bound by tariffs set in Brussels.
If this happens, Johnson could quit because he believes it would be better for Britain to abandon Brexit on those terms and stay in the EU. That could be enough to start a chain of events that brings May’s government down.
David Davis, the combative Brexit Secretary, seems to be permanently on the brink of quitting. According to his allies, that’s because he is.
The U.K.’s Brexit negotiator came closest to resigning last month over May’s plan for a “backstop” guarantee designed to ensure that there will never be a need for a hard customs border between the U.K. and Ireland. Davis objected to May’s idea for an open-ended commitment to applying the EU’s tariffs across the U.K. to avoid the return of goods checks on the politically sensitive Northern Ireland frontier.
Davis is also said to be disgruntled at the way May draws up policy -- in secret with her unelected adviser Oliver Robbins, the man who negotiates with Brussels. Davis feels that he should be far more involved in the process. The result is that his resignation is only “on ice” and hasn’t been fully withdrawn.
The Brexit secretary opened a new battle with May over her white paper proposals on Tuesday, writing her a letter setting out why her plan for a close customs partnership with the EU won’t work.
In private, he was said to be angry that she’d cut him out of the picture again, springing a new policy without discussing it with him first.
Such a move “would be incredibly unwise, especially in an unstable government when the prime minister needs to build alliances in order to survive,” one of Davis’s supporters said.
Michael Gove, the environment secretary, was the brains behind the Vote Leave campaign.
His relationship with May when they were Cabinet colleagues was one of open hostility before she became prime minister. Then she fired him.
Rehabilitated after May’s election gamble went wrong, Gove is now seen by the premier’s aides as a pragmatist and the key voice to win over to her side.
He thinks it’s best to focus on leaving the EU smoothly, even if the deal could be better. Then, over time, future governments and parliaments will be able to improve on the terms of Brexit.
May’s chief Brexit aide Robbins is often portrayed as a pantomime villain by Brexiteers but Gove respects and likes him.
If May is going to win over her Cabinet at Chequers on Friday, and her party more widely afterwards, Gove could play a key role brokering the peace.
Even if she succeeds in producing a plan that her Cabinet will back, that will just be the start. May will have to persuade the EU it’s worth discussing. That didn’t look likely on Thursday when Angela Merkel’s German government seemed unimpressed.
May hopes to finalize a Brexit agreement and negotiate a detailed framework for a new trade partnership with the EU by October, before putting it to a vote in Parliament.
At that point her main concern will be whether enough pro-Brexit Tories beyond her Cabinet are satisfied. It would only take a handful of rank and file Tories to vote against the final exit deal and they could bring her government down. Some are already crying “betrayal.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.