A week is a long time in politics. This time last week No 10 were briefing the press on the aggressive tactics planned to be deployed (if needed) by UK Prime Minister Theresa May to restore collective responsibility and rally her cabinet behind her Brexit vision. Journalists were told that any cabinet minister who refused to back her at Chequers would be expected to make their own arrangements for returning to London – the inference being they would either be expected to resign or be sacked. They would thereby lose the right to use their ministerial transport for the trip back to London – with Chequers being the name of the country residence at the disposal of incumbent UK Prime ministers situated approx. 60 miles away.
After a long day of heated discussions on Friday 6 July, No 10 spin doctors employed stealth communication tactics, removing ministers’ mobile phones to break the news on Friday evening (naturally, unchallengeable) that a consensual deal had been secured. But the self-congratulatory celebrations of securing the immediately published Chequers statement were short-lived. And once again it was dissent from within her own side, rather than the UK’s supposed Brexit counterpart (the European Union), who were the ones to spoil the party. Scathing resignation letters by two of the most senior cabinet members – Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – within a 24 hour period (unprecedented in modern UK politics) significantly undermined the statement’s value. Even if Mrs May appears to have succeeded in holding off a formal challenge for now, her leadership as well as her Brexit approach has once again been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
From an EU perspective, reactions have been low key. The EU’s main negotiator Michel Barnier initially cautiously welcomed the discussion in a short tweet before reverting to type in a speech in the US, reminding the UK that the integrity of the EU’s single market – based on the four freedoms – was sacrosanct for the EU. Meanwhile, the essence of May’s Chequer’s statement was an attempt to remain in the single market for goods and agri-products but not for services, capital and people. EU insiders confirm Barnier’s line: that the Chequer’s statement is a good starting point but it is not an acceptable end point. Paradoxically the resignations are seen by some in Brussels as potentially strengthening May’s hand vis-à-vis the EU – if a reshuffled cabinet is genuinely behind her now, she might be able to cajole them slowly towards a landing point which is more acceptable to the EU. But, in doing so, she risks crossing the Brexiteers in her own party who already see Chequer’s as a betrayal and an unacceptable landing point and who are threatening to oust her unless she rescinds on her Chequers vision in favour of a harder Brexit posture. The Brexiteers are likely to be further disappointed by the recently published White Paper which develops the approach outlined in the Chequer’s statement.
So, in short, whilst Mrs May might have won a pyrrhic, short-lived victory in her internal game of chequers with her cabinet, she still has a long way to go before proving she’s a Rubik’s cube champion by securing a deal all sides can subscribe to. Moving things too much in one direction to try and complete one side of the cube (i.e. to secure Tory party or UK parliamentary support) could well deliver a very mixed picture on one of the other sides of the puzzle (i.e. the EU not being willing/able to accept what she is offering). Whether it’s checkers (not Chequers!) or Rubik’s cubes, it seems the high stakes Brexit games are likely to continue.