Front Bench: The Chequers agreement is far from the last word on Brexit – the challenges will come thick and fast

Daniel Capurro
The Cabinet at Chequers - PA

Today's Front Bench covers last night's Brexit summit at Chequers. A sample of the email is below. If you like what you see, sign up here. Don't forget to vote in the poll and leave your reasoning in the comments below. The best responses will feature in this afternoon's Brexit Briefing.

Front Bench

Forget “three baskets”, it sounds like we might only need one. Well, at least for most things. The much-hyped Brexit “war cabinet” away day to Chequers has come and gone with an agreement reached and no one flouncing out or resigning. 

We won’t find out exactly what was agreed over slow-braised Guinness short rib and lemon tart until next week. However, the 11-strong core Cabinet has reportedly agreed to pursue mutual recognition of regulations. That is, the middle of three baskets or “same goals, different methods”. It means divergence is still possible, but should stave off feared job losses from the sudden erection of trade barriers.

Divergence wins

Pro-Brexiteers are spinning it as “divergence wins”, with The Telegraph being told that Philip Hammond, a supporter of “very modest” Brexit, was “shocked” at the level of divergence agreed to. 

Nevertheless, everyone seems to be relatively happy, with various media outlets being told that the PM “played a blinder”. 

May is worried enough that she has reportedly pushed back the vote on the customs bill to beyond Easter

So, mission accomplished, Brexit here we come? Not quite. There are several hurdles yet. 

Now for Parliament

First, on Tuesday the deal will be put to the full Cabinet. This should be fine, and, when asked on Question Time if everyone in the Cabinet would agree to the deal, Tory Party chairman Brandon Lewis said “absolutely, yes”. 

Second, May has a customs union showdown in Parliament scheduled. As Front Bench reported yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn is set to deliver a speech on Monday in which he is expected to announce that Labour is now in favour of a (although not the) customs union with the EU.

Meanwhile, two bills are currently heading through Parliament, one on trade and one on customs, the latter of which would allow the Government to establish a standalone customs regime after Brexit. 

Et tu, Kenneth?

Tory rebels have ruled out backing amendments emanating from Labour’s front bench, but there is already one for each bill on the table put forward by Tory arch-Remainers Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry. Labour’s new stance could free its MPs to back these amendments. Soubry tabled her amendment to the customs bill yesterday; it would require the Government to “secure tariff-free access to the EU, including the potential to participate in a customs union with the EU.” 

Defeat at this stage could be catastrophic enough to topple the PM, something which may act in May’s favour by putting off potential Tory rebels. One MP told the FT that soft-Brexit Tories were “holding their powder dry in the hope that the PM gets a grip on the Moggsters”. Nevertheless, May is worried enough that she has reportedly pushed back the vote on the customs bill to beyond Easter. 

Meanwhile in Brussels

It’s easy, with all the domestic infighting going on, to forget the objective of all this political wrangling. Which brings us to the third hurdle: the EU. There is little indication so far that this new stance will be seen as anything other than more cake having and eating.

Indeed, on Wednesday the European Commission circulated a 58-page document to the EU27 making that very point clear. It included a “staircase chart” that showed how May sticking to her red lines ruled out anything other than a bog-standard Canada/South Korea style trade deal. 

Perhaps Michel Barnier might like a visit to Chequers too?

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