Theresa May’s Brexit “war cabinet” of senior ministers is set to thrash out the thorniest issues for Britain’s future relationship with the EU at a crunch meeting on Wednesday.
The prime minister and key cabinet ministers on different sides of the Brexit debate, including the chancellor, Philip Hammond, the home secretary, Amber Rudd, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, and the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, will begin drawing up the government’s position on the so-called “end state” for the UK’s relationship with the EU beyond the transition period.
The Brexit subcommittee will meet directly after prime minister’s questions on Wednesday afternoon and is expected to tackle the Northern Irish border issue and immigration. On Thursday morning, ministers will meet again to discuss the future trade relationship with the EU.
Senior government sources have played down the likelihood that a deal will be reached this week. As well as Hammond, Rudd, Gove and Johnson, others on the Brexit subcommittee include the remain-backing Cabinet Office secretary, David Lidington, and the business secretary, Greg Clark, as well as arch-Brexiter Liam Fox, the international trade secretary.
Two others, the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, and the defence secretary Gavin Williamson campaigned for remain, but have since been more publicly optimistic about Brexit than some of their more pro-Europe cabinet colleagues.
Ahead of the meeting, Clark said there was still some way to go before the end state would become clear. “We can’t know an end state until it has been agreed by both sides,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We’ve got a series of meetings to make sure the end state that we want to negotiate, which requires agreement from the counter parties, meets our objectives, that we can continue to thrive, that we can continue to trade without tariffs with the minimum of frictions. That’s what business wants and needs. That is what the purpose of this discussion is.”
Downing Street has been forced to repeatedly restate that the UK is leaving the customs union,after it was widely reported that Brexit advisers were considering a proposal that would lead to an extended customs agreement to cover goods beyond the transition period.
The former chancellor Ken Clarke, a vocal backer of remaining in the EU, said there was a clear majority in the House of Commons for staying in some form of customs union with the EU. “We have the advantage now of frictionless trade. When we do change it we should keep most of the features of the customs union,” he told Today.
“To say you are going to leave the single market and the customs union and have frictionless trade is a contradiction.”
The Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, a prominent Brexiter, said the EU would not impose tariffs post-Brexit, telling the programme it would be “utterly perverse … I don’t think they would be so destructive to do that”.
After the war cabinet meets this week, UK and EU officials will engage in four days of intensive talks next Tuesday, led by Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, and Downing Street’s senior Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins.
The backdrop to the meeting is renewed high tension in the Conservative party, with the pro-remain MP Anna Soubry threatening she would quit the party should hard Brexiters seek to replace May with vocal Eurosceptics Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Justine Greening, who stepped down as education secretary in last month’s reshuffle, also said it “might be a bit of a stretch” for her to remain in the party if Rees-Mogg became leader.
Johnson is set to make his own big speech later this month on the case for a “liberal Brexit”, billed as an appeal to both leavers and remainers on how to make Brexit work.
Before Wednesday’s meeting, the British Chambers of Commerce warned that ‘businesses’ “patience is wearing thin” with the government’s indecision on Brexit.