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Theresa May wines and dines her Brexit ‘war cabinet’ in a bid to hash out a policy
LONDON — They call themselves the “European Research Group,” which sounds faintly clandestine.
But these 62 Conservative Party backbenchers in the British Parliament burst into the open this week with a push for a “hard” Brexit, warning their leader, Prime Minister Theresa May, in a public letter not to cave during upcoming clinch negotiations with Brussels.
The Tory hard-liners want Britain to have a complete, clean, clear exit from the European Union — or else.
Supporters of a softer, gentler Brexit, including high-ranking Conservative allies of May, called their demands “a ransom note.”
On Thursday, in what was billed as a showdown, May met with her Brexit “war cabinet” — 10 ministers whose portfolios touch on Brexit issues but who represent both the hard and soft camps — at the prime minister’s official country home, Chequers. Tea, snacks, drinks, dinner, desserts, talk and drinks were on the agenda.
The aim was for May to corral her divided government to present a united front to press on with Brexit. Late Thursday, her office said in a terse statement that the group met for eight hours, that it dined on cream of sweet corn soup and slow-braised Guinness short rib of beef, and that May would set out “the way forward” in a speech next week after meeting with her full cabinet.
There was no word on a united front.
It has been 600 days since the June 2016 referendum in which British voters chose to leave the European Union, and it is little over a year away from Britain’s self-declared exit from the bloc in March 2019 — and still May’s Tory government remains a house divided.
Europe’s leaders, accepting that Britain will leave the union, keep asking for clarity from May and her negotiators — and so do anxious Britons, from Cornish fisherfolk to Kentish berry farmers to London City bankers.
The Brexit meeting Thursday featured such senior figures as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who has promised that Britain can “have its cake and eat it, too,” and Chancellor Philip Hammond, who worries the country is heading toward rough economic times if it crashes out of the European Union.
Despite a string of speeches by May and her ministers, no one in London or Brussels is yet quite sure what Brexit means — meaning how much Britain remains allied with the bloc — in terms of standards for washing machines, tariffs for motorcars, quotas for salmon fishing, and on and on.
To say nothing of the far more emotionally fraught status of Europeans in Britain or Brits abroad: Who stays? Who comes? How many? How easy? All unknown.
Polly Toynbee, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, called Thursday’s meeting at Chequers the “lockdown from hell” and said that the Tory leaders were “destined to disagree into eternity on the most momentous question of their lifetime.”
May’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, joked that the cabinet would be “locked in a room all day, not overnight.”
“Even the Brexit Secretary, a man once described as being able to swagger sitting down, could not pretend that today’s summit would result in a finalized position arising,” wrote the Telegraph.
Davis told the newspaper this week: “There is no final answer.”
The prime minister has repeatedly said that “Brexit means Brexit.” She has vowed that Britain will leave the European single market and customs union — although many in her government want to remain more closely aligned.
The single market guarantees free movement of goods, capital, services and people — the “four freedoms” of the European Union — while the customs union provides for tariff-free trade among the 28 member states but requires that the bloc of 500 million consumers negotiates trade agreements abroad as one, rather than as individual European states doing bilateral deals.
Late last year, May pledged that Britain would pay its debts and duties to the E.U. through 2019, at an estimated cost of $55 billion.
The prime minister also said Britain needs an “implementation period” of two years to untangle itself from Europe.
This week, the government has said it might need more time than that, and one minister said it might have to pay more to leave.
Analysts said that an “away day” for the Brexit subcommittee was unlikely to lead to a profound reconciliation over the long-standing arguments.
Conservative Party lawmakers have been squabbling over Europe for decades. The vexing issue has led to the downfall of more than one British prime minister, including David Cameron, who hoped to mitigate the feuding in his party by holding the June 2016 referendum.
“If you have a family that’s had a feud that’s run for three generations, it’s not going to be sorted out by one Christmas dinner, however good that Christmas dinner might be,” said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “It’s an argument that’s fundamentally impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of all concerned.”
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