A meeting of the Brexit “war Cabinet” today is unlikely to achieve a breakthrough on Britain’s aims for its “end state” relationship with the EU, a senior minister has admitted.
Theresa May is under huge pressure to end the confusion over her negotiating stance, with business leaders threatening to pull investment from the UK if she dithers for more than a fortnight longer.
But, speaking ahead of the two-day meeting, Business Secretary Greg Clark twice failed to say that senior Cabinet ministers – who have been rowing in public – would be able to end their divisions.
Instead, he argued that business leaders had been given the reassurance they needed with the decision to pursue a transition period, keeping existing trading rules for about two years.
Mr Clark said a “series of meetings” of the inner Cabinet would be needed before agreement was reached on a long-term deal that “meets our objectives”.
Pointing instead to the certainty to be provided by the transition period, he said: “That was a very important request from business and we were able to achieve that.”
The comments suggest that this week’s get-togethers – discussing immigration and Northern Ireland today and trade tomorrow – are merely a taster for further intense talks later this month.
The Prime Minister has been accused of still trying to “have her cake and eat it”, by vowing to leave the EU’s single market and customs union while demanding tariff-free and frictionless trade.
Her task is to somehow achieve a consensus among the ten other ministers in the “war Cabinet”, who include big figures from both sides of the bitter Tory civil war on Europe.
Pro-EU ministers include Chancellor Philip Hammond, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Mr Clark – but with arch-Brexiteers Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, and Trade Secretary Liam Fox also around the table.
Mr Hammond has openly called for only “very modest” changes after Brexit, while Mr Johnson and Dr Fox have attacked anything short of a clean break from EU’s economic structures.
As The Independent reveals today, Mr Johnson is also planning a big speech on Brexit next week, which may trigger further damaging public fall-outs.
Overnight, the British Chambers of Commerce published an open letter to Mrs May, making clear its patience was wearing thin and setting a deadline of two weeks for a decision.
“Businesses need those elected to govern our country to make choices – and to deliver a clear, unequivocal statement of intent,” the organisation’s director general and president wrote.
Brussels has also laid bare its frustration over Britain’s failure to spell out what it wants. “The time has come to make a choice,” Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said in No 10 this week.
And Keir Starmer, Labour’s spokesman, said: “Sixteen months after Theresa May set out her red lines on Brexit, it is obvious they stand in the way of a progressive partnership with the EU capable of delivering the benefits of the single market and the customs union.
“Now is time for the prime minister to deal with the divisions in her Cabinet, and rethink her reckless approach.”