Inside Chequers: Grown men and women howling about regulatory divergence and imagining they are making history

Tom Peck
Theresa May last held a Brexit retreat at Chequers in August 2016, two months after becoming Prime Minister: PA

The TV helicopters whirred for long hours over the Buckinghamshire countryside. You almost had to feel sorry for them. In the old days it was easy to get a look inside Chequers. All you had to do was become a page 3 model, have sex with John Whittingdale and have him text you a picture.

It was never immediately clear what they were expecting. Though Thursday afternoon’s Brexit war cabinet meeting is being treated as if it were a papal enclave, there is no established protocol that will indicate when or how it has reached its conclusion.

There is, mercifully, no precedent for what happens when a mini-cabinet has come to a settled view on the model for Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the European Union. It has never happened before. It will never happen again. Indeed we may never know if it ever happened at all.

That this historic moment is already wondrously technocratic in nature, and may very well involve the striking of a late night deal between egotistical politicians who are simply too knackered to carry on, does at least suggest the UK is already coming round to the EU’s way of doing things.

But this is a particularly tough circle to square. Among the eleven people in question, there is a lot of ego and precious little middle ground.

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit, Canada plus plus plus, Norway minus with a double front pike somersault: all these options require discussion, and none offer what one suspects Theresa May ultimately wants, which is an escape route from the chaotic inferno of hate which Brexit has heaped upon the land.

The Chancellor wants soft Brexit. The Foreign Secretary wants hard Brexit. The Brexit Secretary thinks he wants a hard Brexit but hasn’t yet got round to finding out what one is.

The Northern Ireland Secretary is trying really hard to care about what sort of Brexit she wants but can’t fully escape this nagging worry about Northern Ireland still being without a government and her being in Chequers listening to people howl about the single market and the customs union.

The Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, doesn’t mind what Brexit he gets as long as he gets to have his picture taken shaking hands with it for the local papers. Although, if pushed, he would most like a Brexit which can be used against others.

It is sublime, really. For forty long years the only EU regulations anyone in the UK knew and didn’t care about concerned the straightness of bananas and, to a lesser extent, the suction power of vacuums.

Now, they define our politics and will continue to do so.

“Regulatory divergence!” “Full regulatory autonomy!” These are the sorts of things we must imagine Phil Hammond and Michael Gove barking at one another across an antique mahogany table, in scenes that anyone present will already be imagining they might one day have to tell their grandkids about but are not quite sure why.

The speculation is that for now the warring British factions will be bought off by a “three baskets” approach - that full alignment with future EU regulations, partial alignment and no alignment can all be kept alive, and different sectors, like aviation of what have you, can be dropped into each basket.

Fortunately, when no meaningful compromise is reached all parties can at least reassure themselves that none of it matters. Arguably the first stage in accepting whatever it is the EU decides it wants to give you - which is working out what you want and then not being allowed it - really should not have taken so long.