British Prime Minister Theresa May has persuaded her eurosceptic ministers to back a plan for closer ties with the EU after Brexit, but some MPs expressed alarm — and she must still sell it to Brussels.
After marathon talks at her country retreat on Friday, May secured the agreement of her divided cabinet for a new “free trade area” where Britain would accept EU rules for goods in order to provide “frictionless” trade.
There had been talk of resignations over the plan by ministers who want a clean break with the bloc, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
But they failed to materialise and May now has something to offer Brussels, which has warned time is running out to secure a deal before Brexit in March.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc would assess the plans when they are fleshed out in a policy paper next week, to “see if they are workable and realistic.”
Uniting her cabinet was a big win for May, after two years of very public splits.
In a letter to members of her Conservative party, she said she had allowed ministers to speak out before but “collective responsibility is now fully restored”.
Several eurosceptic ministers on Saturday publicly backed the premier, including leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.
Pro-European MPs who had previously rebelled against May also offered their support for the plan, with Anna Soubry saying it “delivers a business friendly Brexit”.
Perhaps surprisingly, Douglas Carswell, who co-founded the official Brexit campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, gave his backing.
“Read the detail and ask if this allows us to take back control. It does. Incrementally,” he tweeted.
“A deal that guarantees us access to the (EU’s single market) until such time as we chose regulatory divergence?… Sounds ok to me.”
– Brexit in all but name –
But Nigel Farage, the founder of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and a key player in the Brexit vote, dismissed the plan as a “sell-out”.
“Brexit did not mean keeping the 90 percent of our economy that does not export to the EU trapped by their laws,” he tweeted.
Taking aim at eurosceptic ministers, he said: “No resignations means that the so-called Brexiteers in cabinet don’t have a principle between them.”
Veteran eurosceptic MP Bill Cash also told the BBC he was “deeply disappointed”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs, refused to condemn the plan outright.
But he told the BBC: “If, when we get the detailed legislation, it turns out that it is a punishment Brexit, that it is keeping us in the European Union in all but name, I… will not vote for it.”
– Cherry-picking? –
Any final deal must be agreed in the House of Commons, where May has only a slim majority dependent on the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
But before that, it must be agreed with the European Union, which has repeatedly warned it will not accept “cherry-picking” elements of its single market.
Britain’s plan would maintain EU rules on goods but adopt greater flexibility on services and end free moment of people.
May met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel the day before the cabinet talks, where she reportedly showed her a draft of the proposal.
She has also held talks in recent days with EU president Donald Tusk and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who said he was also briefed on the plans.
Ireland is important because May has promised to avoid border checks between that country and British Northern Ireland, to protect the peace process.
Deputy prime minister Simon Coveney tweeted that the plan “deserves detailed consideration”, adding: “Lots of work ahead.”