British Prime Minister Theresa May challenged hardliners in her warring cabinet to unite behind a Brexit plan and unblock negotiations with the European Union, with warnings she is running out of time to get a deal.
At a marathon meeting at Chequers, the 16th-century manor house near London that serves as her official country retreat, May pushed for an agreement on a crucial policy paper outlining Britain’s plans due to be published next week.
Rumours swirled that ministers such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson are strongly opposed to the deal and some could resign.
A government source told Politico that any who quit will not be allowed to use their ministerial cars to travel back to London.
“Taxi cards for Aston’s taxis, the local cab firm, are in the foyer for those who decide they can’t face making the right decision for the country,” the source said.
May’s spokeswoman said the talks were expected to go on until 2130 GMT.
‘Stick to the timetable’
Less than nine months before Britain leaves the bloc, May’s government has yet to set out exactly what it wants amid some very public splits about how much it will align with the EU’s rules.
The lack of progress has frustrated European leaders, who are stepping up preparations in case there is no agreement at all, and businesses who are being increasingly vocal about the risks to jobs and investment.
Details of May’s plan leaked to the press would keep Britain half-in, half-out of the European single market and Brexit hardliners in parliament have voiced strong opposition as the proposals could include a role for the European Court of Justice.
Agreeing a common position among her divided ministers is only one element of the Brexit process — the hardest part will be getting agreement from Brussels, which has repeatedly warned Britain to lower its expectations.
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Friday said: “I’m ready to adapt our offer should the UK’s red lines change…. Ideally the UK’s proposals will facilitate both the UK’s internal political debate and the negotiation with us”.
Faced with the risk of an impasse, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, has mentioned the possibility of extending talks and therefore delaying Britain’s departure date.
But this would depend on a unanimous decision by EU leaders.
Speaking at the same event in Vienna, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “We want to stick to the timetable agreed”.
‘This is not Brexit’
Businesses have upped the pressure for an agreement ahead of the meeting, with Airbus chief executive Tom Enders saying at a briefing on Friday that May’s government had “no clue or at least no consensus” on avoiding serious harm from Brexit.
Leaks suggest May will propose to keep and commit to future EU rules on trade in goods, an outcome intended in part to fulfil a pledge to avoid customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
By contrast it will accept “reduced market access” for services — Britain’s dominant sector — in return for greater flexibility, reports suggest.
The plan caused outrage among eurosceptic MPs in May’s Conservative party, with one fuming that “this is not Brexit” and another saying it would leave Britain “out of Europe but still run by Europe”.
“This common rulebook means that we are essentially a vassal state,” leading eurosceptic backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Seven Brexit supporting cabinet ministers met at the Foreign Office on Thursday to discuss their push back against the plans, according to media reports.
They are expected to tell May that the leaked details are “not acceptable”, warning that she risks bringing the government down, according to the Daily Telegraph, with scores of backbench eurosceptic Tories able to force a confidence vote on her leadership.
They are particularly concerned that alignment on goods would restrict Britain’s ability to sign trade deals with non-EU countries such as the United States, which for many is the chief reason for leaving the EU.
The question is whether they can accept May’s plan as warnings grow that continued in-fighting may prompt a revolt in parliament, where most MPs supported staying in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
“If they can’t decide, it will be up the Commons to take control,” one pro-European MP told AFP.