Theresa May secures a fragile peace over Brexit – UK

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Dining over cured Scottish salmon and Oxfordshire beef fillet at Chequers last night, Theresa May’s cabinet appeared to be having a good time in each others’ company.

Happy chatter and laughter floated through the open windows into the walled Tudor courtyard of the prime minister’s country retreat.

“It’s been a long time since I heard that. It sounded positive, which was nice,” said one eavesdropper. “Let’s hope it lasts.”

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It has been quite an astonishing 48 hours in which Theresa May – and her cabinet — has travelled a huge distance.

We began the week with ministers in open warfare over Brexit and ended it with the cabinet struck mute by her reassertion of collective cabinet responsibility.



Ministerial cars line up as they arrive for the cabinet meeting




2:46

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PM cracks down on collective responsibility

No wonder her team are worried about whether this handbrake turn will really stick.

But for now, discipline is restored and her cabinet – including the Brexiteers – have fallen in behind a soft Brexit plan that crosses many a red line for those who backed Vote Leave.

How did she do it?

The clue was in the words realised on the eve of her Chequers cabinet away day when Mrs May told her colleagues they needed to agree an approach that is in “the best interests of the UK and EU and, crucially, one that commands the support of public and parliament”.

Ministers have had a luxurious lunch and dinner at Chequers. Pic: Crown Copyright
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Cabinet discipline was restored following the Chequers showdown. Pic: Crown Copyright

Parliament was key to her argument. I’m told that Chief Whip Julian Smith warned the cabinet that if no deal was reached in Chequers, he’d be unable to stop Tory remainers voting with Labour to keep the UK in the customs union in two weeks’ time when the Trade Bill arrives on the floor of the Commons.

The chief whip said there were 20 Conservative MPs who would vote against the government to thwart Mrs May’s Brexit manifesto promises. When it boiled down to it, her soft Brexit plan was the best they were going to get.

There are, of course, huge concerns within the Brexiteer ranks over what has been settled on.

Senior Brexiteers are hugely concerned there will further concessions over EU citizens having some form of freedom of movement via the backdoor.

The stage is set for the meeting at Chequers
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Parliament was key to Theresa May’s argument

Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid were two ministers pushing her on this. I’m told the home secretary pressed the prime minister to draw an unequivocal red line.

“Free movement must, end, no ifs, or buts, no back door, end in all forms. People voted to take back control of our borders,” Mr Javid said.

Mrs May said it would – in fact she shouted – “it will end” to her cabinet in order to make the point.

But her cabinet left Chequers last night still full of suspicion this red line will blur when the horse trading with the EU intensifies in the autumn.

And that too is why the Brexiteers broke bread with the prime minister last night rather than flouncing out. They might not like this version of Brexit, but its better than the one on offer from a Remain-backing parliament.

The big fear now for those on the Vote Leave side is that there’ll be even further concessions on what red lines remain as negotiations continue.

Better then to stick around for the next battle in Brussels than fall on your sword now.

Peace for now – but it feels very fragile indeed.

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