Wednesday 21 November 2018

May faces cabinet revolt over fears of push for soft Brexit

David Davis. Photo: PA Wire
David Davis. Photo: PA Wire

Gordon Rayner

Theresa May is facing a cabinet revolt after Brexiteers led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove expressed "genuine fear" the British prime minister is trying to force through a soft Brexit.

Mrs May was accused of trying to "bounce" the cabinet into agreeing to "regulatory alignment" between Ireland and Northern Ireland after it emerged she did not brief senior ministers before talks in Brussels on Monday that stalled over the controversial issue.

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said yesterday that any alignment between the North and Ireland would apply to the whole of the UK, which Leave supporters interpreted as Britain remaining yoked to the EU.

One cabinet source said: "It seems that either Northern Ireland is splitting from the rest of the UK or we are headed for high alignment with the EU, which certainly hasn't been agreed by cabinet. The prime minister is playing a risky game."

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, used a speech to City businessmen last night to say: "We want to protect our existing trading relationships with the EU", and added: "No existing trade agreement, nor third-country access to the EU, could support the scale and complexity of reciprocal trade in financial services that exists between the UK and the EU."

Meanwhile, Mrs May was dealt a serious blow by the DUP, as sources in Belfast said "radical work" was needed on the text which would take "several days". DUP leader Arlene Foster said she only saw the text of the proposed agreement on Britain's withdrawal from the EU late on Monday morning when Mrs May was already in Brussels.

Read more: Arlene Foster claims Irish government 'prevented' DUP from seeing text on border agreement 

Read more: Varadkar tells May 'the ball is in your court' on Brexit border issue 

Mrs May now faces one of the biggest battles of her career to salvage the deal after cabinet ministers, the DUP and the Irish Government all suggested she had gone behind their backs.

Last night, Downing Street still could not say when the prime minister would next be in Belgium. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said Sunday was the last day on which he could meet Mrs May to agree a deal before it became too late for next week's European Council summit to agree to trade talks starting.

Cabinet sources said Mrs May had failed to seek ministers' agreement on the idea of regulatory alignment, and made only a "fleeting" mention of it at yesterday's weekly cabinet meeting.

Mr Johnson and Mr Gove are among senior Brexit-supporting ministers now concerned about the direction of travel.

One cabinet source said: "There is a genuine fear that we are heading for a soft Brexit... It seems that the plan was to square it with the EU and come back and bounce the DUP and the cabinet into accepting her position."

A UK government source said the cabinet had signed up to Mrs May's Florence speech, adding: "Anyone who is suggesting that means we are not leaving the customs union or the single market is deluded."

Read more: Police arrest two men 'planning to blow up Downing Street gates and assassinate Theresa May'

Read more: Sterling under pressure despite Government efforts to reboot Brexit talks 

Irish Independent

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