PM and Cabinet's marathon Brexit talks end at Chequers

22 February 2018, 22:10

A crunch Cabinet meeting at Chequers has ended after a marathon eight hours of Brexit discussions.

The Prime Minister had dragged 11 of her senior ministers to her official country retreat in Buckinghamshire for an away day on Thursday.

Theresa May hoped the talks would forge an agreement between her Cabinet's Brexiteers and Remainers on the UK's approach to the next stage of negotiations.

The discussions of the Brexit sub-committee, Mrs May's so-called Brexit "war Cabinet", focussed on the automotive sector, agriculture and digital trade.

Business Secretary Greg Clark, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox led the Cabinet discussions in their respective areas of responsibility.

The Prime Minister also led a debate on the overall future UK-EU economic partnership.

Conservative chief whip Julian Smith, head of the civil service Sir Jeremy Heywood, Mrs May's Europe adviser Olly Robbins and a number of senior government officials joined the talks.

Mrs May will set out her confirmed strategy for the next phase of Brexit negotiations, on a transition deal and a future trade deal, in a speech next week.

It will come after a meeting of her full Cabinet.

At their dinner on Thursday, the senior Cabinet ministers enjoyed a starter of cream of sweetcorn soup, followed by slow-braised Guinness short rib of beef and lemon tart for dessert.

However, before the Cabinet talks had even begun, Mrs May saw the European Commission appear to reject her "three baskets" approach to future UK-EU regulatory cooperation.

The Prime Minister had previously suggested Britain could harmonise with existing EU regulations in some industries such as aviation and cars, align with EU rules but with different methods in areas such as finance, and diverge significantly in some sectors such as fishing.

But, in internal presentations, the European Commission argued the UK approach towards regulatory oversight in the future EU-UK relationship is "not compatible" with current guidelines set by remaining member states.

Mrs May is also facing fresh pressure from both sides of the Brexit divide in the Conservative Party.

Last week, 62 Tory MPs belonging to the European Research Group of eurosceptic backbenchers wrote to the Prime Minister demanding the UK have full control over regulations after Brexit and not become a "rule taker" from the EU.

Meanwhile, Conservative Remainer Anna Soubry tabled a slightly different amendment to the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill, to state the Government must seek to maintain the UK's membership of a customs union with the EU.

Ms Soubry claimed her amendment was attracting cross-party support, as she highlighted the backing of former Tory Cabinet minister Nicky Morgan and Labour's Chuka Umunna.

It comes after Labour moved towards backing continued membership of a customs union with the EU, with Jeremy Corbyn due to deliver a major Brexit speech on Monday after facing calls to clarify his party's position.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said Labour want to negotiate a new customs union with the EU, which would "look pretty much like" the current one.

It has been suggested Mr Corbyn could soon significantly soften Labour's approach to Brexit.

The Prime Minister, under pressure from Brexiteer MPs who fear restricting the UK's ability to sign post-Brexit independent trade deals, has ruled out any form of customs union with the EU.

Sky News political editor Faisal Islam said: "While the Prime Minister tries to sort out the Cabinet at Chequers, it is increasingly febrile again here at Parliament.

"That letter from Brexiteer eurosceptics has enraged many Tory Remainer rebels, or at least those who would contemplate staying in a customs union.

"They've tabled a new amendment to the customs bill and, together with likely Labour movement on the issue, they feel they can defeat the Government.

"The Government has responded by pushing back the legislation by weeks or even months."