In Depth

Chequers summit: four Brexit scenarios on the table at PM’s crunch talks

Ramifications may be seismic whichever Brexit strategy Theresa May adopts

After nearly two years of squabbling, Theresa May has today gathered her cabinet at Chequers in a bid to get agreement on a final proposal for the UK’s upcoming exit from the European Union.

With the UK due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, the Prime Minister is desperate to break the deadlock in the Brexit talks. “To allow time for parliaments in the UK and the EU to approve whatever deal is agreed, the aim is for the framework for future relations to be agreed this autumn,” says the BBC.

Although proceedings are taking place behind closed doors, far from the eyes of the political press, The Guardian has expectations of “a potentially dramatic event taking place”, including possible cabinet resignations, depending on whether May opts for a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.

However, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington told BBC’s Today programme that he was “pretty confident” that ministers would reach “a concrete position which everybody is able to sign up to.”

So what are the possible outcomes of the crunch talks?

May stands by soft Brexit, Brexiteers swallow their pride

May is “expected to push for a version of Brexit that will require her red lines to bend significantly to allow for a deal that won’t crash the economy”, which might include “swallowing European Union regulations in some sectors”, The Guardian suggests.

This would be a blow for the party’s cabal of hard-line Brexiteers, but talk of a full-scale revolt may be overblown.

Last night, seven Brexiteer cabinet ministers held closed talks to discuss their strategy at Chequers. Pro-Brexit International Trade Minister Liam Fox signalled that he was “content” with the PM’s plans, but the other six remain unconvinced.

This group, led by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, may prevail over a number of hard-line Brexiteers who have “proved very adept at signalling resignation threats when they want to”, says Channel 4 News’s Gary Gibbon.

On the other hand, many of the hardliners may simply accept May’s Brexit concessions in order to push the process forward and then bide their time, Gibbon continues.

“Some of the Cabinet Brexiteers will comfort themselves that the inhibitions and shackles of the Swiss approach would become apparent over time and a political force would develop that would demand the EU chains were shaken off,” he explains. 

May stands by soft Brexit, Brexiteers revolt

With news that May is expected to push for a “third way” customs union, rather than the hard-line “max fac” arrangement preferred by Brexit Secretary David Davis, senior Brexiteers “may conclude that the compromises they are being asked to make are too great and they can no longer serve in her government”, says the Financial Times.

“If the true Brexit believers do not quit on principle now, it seems unlikely they ever will,” the newpaper adds, naming Johnson as most likely to hand in his notice.

The FT’s Sebastian Payne warns that the Government “would be thrown into chaos” by such a revolt.

However, Tory MP Mark Pritchard argues that ministers threatening to resign over such compromises would not be missed. “Theresa May’s Brexit strategy has the support of the majority of the parliamentary party and Conservative Associations,” he says. “If ministers want to resign, they will be replaced. The Government will not collapse.” 

May bows to hard Brexit, Remainers swallow their pride

Most media outlets suggest that May pushing for a hard Brexit at this point is extremely unlikely.

What is even less likely is the prospect of May’s pro-Remain cabinet ministers - who outnumber their Leave colleagues 20 to eight - agreeing with the PM if she were to lay out such a plan.

All the same, as Quartz points out that, no matter what happens at Chequers, “a hard Brexit is looking increasingly likely” owing to stalling negotiations with the EU, which has “consistently reminded Britain that it can’t have an ‘a la carte’ Brexit”. 

As such, Remainer ministers may decide that resignations are futile. 

May bows to hard Brexit, Remainers revolt

In the unlikely event that May succumbs to demands for a hard Brexit, a Remainer revolt is the most likely outcome.

Following the lead of Phillip Lee, who last month quit as parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, many pro-Remain government figures would almost certainly step down from their roles on principle if May were to switch back to a clean break from the EU.

Soft Brexiteers have an overwhelming majority over their pro-hard-Brexit counterparts, but “neither hard nor soft Brexiteers can be certain that rebellion will deliver their preferred rather than least-favoured outcome, or know the consequences for May’s leadership”, according to think tank The UK in a Changing Europe.

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