The Brexiteers won’t quit if Theresa May makes pragmatic compromises over Brexit

Michael Gove is still croaking about banning foie gras after Brexit and Johnson delivered a whole speech on Wednesday about the liberal case for leaving and why Remainers should embrace it

John Rentoul
Saturday 17 February 2018 16:10
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Theresa May has repeatedly crossed Boris Johnson's Brexit red lines
Theresa May has repeatedly crossed Boris Johnson's Brexit red lines

Boris Johnson looked a bit like a parboiled frog when he delivered his Valentine’s Day speech. Theresa May is gradually heating the water so that the Brexiteers in her Cabinet won’t realise until too late that they are being cooked. I don’t think this was what she set out to do, but it has turned out to be the only way to hold her Government together through the Brexit negotiations.

In her speech today at the Munich Security Conference, the Prime Minister turned up the heat a little more by saying that, “when participating in EU agencies, the UK will respect the remit of the European Court of Justice”. Previously, she has suggested that the UK would seek some kind of associate membership of agencies such as Euratom, the nuclear co-operation club, as a way of avoiding direct ECJ jurisdiction.

Today’s speech adopted a more pragmatic line. In effect, May said she was happy to accept ECJ rulings in areas where we choose to take part. This involves a trivial infringement of British sovereignty compared with membership of the EU, but it clashes with the absolutist rhetoric of the Leavers – including her own, in the Lancaster House speech last year, when she promised to “bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain”.

And yet the Brexiteer frogs have still not jumped out of the Cabinet saucepan. Michael Gove is still croaking about banning foie gras after Brexit (we already have a ban on production), and Johnson delivered a whole speech on Wednesday about the liberal case for leaving and why Remainers should embrace it.

After the speech, he was asked if he would guarantee not to resign if the Cabinet decided in favour of regulatory alignment with the EU on manufactured goods. “We’re all very lucky to serve,” he replied, pretending not to notice that the water was getting hot.

It sounded like a rather technical question. Would the Foreign Secretary really resign over something that sounded like the small print? The trouble is that it was a reference to what he said in September: “There is no point in coming out of the EU and then remaining in rotational orbit around it. That is the worst of both worlds. You have to be able to have control of your regulatory framework.”

We may be about to find out whether Johnson stands by that on Thursday, when the Cabinet meets for a long session at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country home. It is quite likely that Theresa May will propose what Johnson called “the worst of both worlds” – for some categories of trade, such as manufactured goods, at least.

It would be hard for Johnson to resign and to make it look as if it were some great stand on a point of principle. He has, after all, been allowed to make a speech – unlike five months ago when May told him not to, so he published it in the Daily Telegraph anyway.

Theresa May: After Brexit the UK will pursue an independent foreign policy

It is not her fault that the Foreign Secretary’s speech this week was such a poor one. She didn’t suggest that he “reach out” to the Remainers by reminding them of the promise of £350m a week for the NHS on the side of the bus. In his speech Johnson said, twice, that we would be able to spend more on the NHS after Brexit.

And when they get to Chequers is Johnson really going to walk out if the majority of the Cabinet agree to try to keep our economy close to the EU’s? I suspect he will bow instead to the spirit of pragmatism that we saw in the Prime Minister’s speech in Munich.

It was significant that some flexibility has been shown by both sides. The EU side in the Brexit negotiations this week rewrote the “punishment clause” that would have allowed the EU Commission to suspend UK access to the single market during the transition period. I thought David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, had been over the top in his condemnation of the draft, but it seems to have had the desired effect.

Then on Friday Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, seemed to accept that there could be some status for Britain that lies between being an EU member state and a non-member state like any other.

If a deal can be done, I don’t believe Johnson or any of the other Cabinet Brexiteers is going to stand against it. I would guess that the Cabinet will emerge from Chequers with an agreed position on the future relationship with the EU and no resignations. The frogs will have been well and truly boiled.

Then all we have to do is have the negotiation.

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