May insists Brexit talks still on track ahead of key EU summit
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May insists Brexit talks still on track ahead of key EU summit

Theresa May will seek to paper over the cracks in her warring cabinet and insist the government is making progress on Brexit when she updates EU leaders over dinner in Brussels on Thursday.

The prime minister will be given a brief opportunity to address her EU counterparts at a summit that was until recently billed as a make-or-break moment on the road to Brexit.

A senior government source said there would be no discussion before EU leaders turned their attention to the migration crisis and eurozone reform. “We wouldn’t expect a debate on it,” he said.

Instead, leaders are likely to ratchet up the pressure on Britain to make a choice about the future relationship it wants with the EU.

At Thursday’s summit, which the remaining 27 EU members will continue on Friday once May has left, the prime minister will seek to underline the UK’s continued commitment to its EU partners after Brexit.

“The PM will re-emphasise the UK’s commitment to working with the EU to address the common challenge posed by illegal migration now and after the UK leaves the EU,” a senior government source said.

The prime minister travels to Brussels after a week of very public cabinet disunity, including over whether the aerospace company Airbus was right to warn of the risks of a no-deal Brexit.

Jeremy Hunt described Airbus’s statement as “completely inappropriate”, while the business secretary, Greg Clark, defended the firm’s right to contribute to the Brexit debate.

The former chancellor George Osborne waded into the row on Wednesday, telling business leaders at a private CBI lunch: “I know it’s not easy to raise your head above the parapet. But do speak out and make yourself heard … Your actual experience needs to be heard in this debate”.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, repeatedly mocked the cabinet splits and indecision at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, saying May was putting jobs at risk.

With less than a month before parliament breaks up for the summer recess, Downing Street is preparing a fresh push to unite ministers around a Brexit negotiating position, which will be fleshed out in a white paper expected to run to more than 130 pages.

Whitehall sources say May is increasingly leaning towards a Norway-style approach, that would involve accepting single market membership, at least for goods, while Brexiters are continuing to push for a much looser, Canada-type trade deal.

Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe, said the government was slowly realising that its hopes for a bespoke relationship are unrealistic – particularly with time so short. However, both of the options left on the table are deeply problematic for the prime minister.

“It’s politics versus economics,” he said. “The impact of [a Canada-style deal] on the economy is very bad; but the politics of selling the alternative, which is Norway-plus-a-customs-union, are terrible for May”. The latter approach would be likely to enrage some Brexiters, and could even prompt resignations.

May would also have to sell it to the EU. Brussels is adamant the single market is indivisible, and membership for some sectors would be “cherrypicking”.

But senior negotiators believe they have picked up more positive signals from EU governments keen to avoid trade disruption. May will meet a series of EU27 leaders in the next seven days, beginning on the sidelines of the European council in Brussels, to seek to win them over.

Domestically, Clark is increasingly becoming the champion of the softest possible Brexit. He has recently visited the Irish border and the Norway/Sweden border to understand the risks for trade. “He’s seen it it in real life and he’s been affected by what he saw,” said a source close to the business secretary.

A senior Tory source said: “He’s accepted the fact that we’re leaving the single market and the customs union. He accepts that’s the political and legal statement we have to make and that’s the starting point. We’re trying to find ways of minimising disruption – linguistic ways of protecting vestiges of seamless movement for example, for the movement of parts for planes. It’s a very fine linguistic tightrope, as well as a political one.”

Both options for future customs arrangements – including the Brexiters’ favoured “max fac” approach – are expected to appear in the white paper.

Brexiters say they are relaxed about drafts of the paper already circulating in Whitehall. “There isn’t a white paper as such,” said a senior government source. “There’s lots of drafts and comments on drafts, and they can change until the last possible moment”.

May’s former chief of staff, Nick Timothy, uses an article in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph to urge her to take a more robust line with Brussels, and step up no-deal planning.

“The time for playing nice and being exploited is over,” he said, warning against any deal that would require the government to accept continued freedom of movement.

May’s decision to summon the entire cabinet to Chequers, not just her deadlocked Brexit subcommittee, is causing anxiety among leavers. “They’re stacking the deck to make sure they’ve got the numbers in the room,” said one senior government Brexiter.

At Thursday’s summit, expected to be dominated by the migration issue, May will also urge the EU to work closely with the UK on security, including by coordinating responses to Russia and other hostile states.

She will urge her colleagues to roll over the sanctions against Russia introduced after the conflict in Crimea; and to share the names of the Russian diplomats expelled after the Skripal poisoning, so that they are not readmitted to other EU countries.

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