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May faces down Cabinet rebels to secure Brexit plan

The PM's proposals would see the UK remain aligned with Brussels’ rules on goods.

Ministers thrashed out details at Chequers on Friday.
Ministers thrashed out details at Chequers on Friday. PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May appears to have faced down Brexiteer Cabinet ministers after securing agreement on plans which will keep the UK closely aligned to Brussels.

The proposals, which will now be assessed by the European Union, would result in the creation of a new UK-EU free trade area for goods, with a "common rulebook".

But under the Government's plans the UK would be free to diverge from EU rules over services, a major part of the British economy, with ministers acknowledging this will reduce the levels of access available to European markets.

Free movement would also end, although the proposals include a "mobility framework" to ensure UK and EU citizens can easily travel to each other's territories and apply to study or work.

Brussels will be reluctant to support any plan which would risk splitting the single market, and ministers appeared to acknowledge this by agreeing to step up preparations for a "no deal" Brexit.

But Mrs May said she hoped the proposals, which will be produced in a formal White Paper next week, would enable talks with the EU to move forward.

On the eve of the marathon Chequers meeting, Brexiteer ministers met at Boris Johnson's Foreign Office to consider their strategy.

Brexit Secretary David Davis was understood to have serious reservations about both the plan and whether it could be acceptable to Brussels.

But no one resigned and the Prime Minister said the Cabinet had agreed a "collective position" on the future of the negotiations with the EU.

"Our proposal will create a UK-EU free trade area which establishes a common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products," she said.

"This maintains high standards in these areas, but we will also ensure that no new changes in the future take place without the approval of our Parliament.

"As a result, we avoid friction in terms of trade, which protects jobs and livelihoods, as well as meeting our commitments in Northern Ireland."

The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said he was looking forward to the publication of the White Paper and the EU would consider whether the proposals are "workable and realistic".

Business leaders, who have raised concerns about the impact of Brexit on jobs and the economy, also welcomed the Cabinet agreement.

CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn said it was a "genuine confidence boost" but added: "The hard work starts now, and time is a challenge."

Mrs May's position could still be under threat from Tory Brexiteers despite the Cabinet agreement.

Backbencher Andrea Jenkyns said she was "awaiting the detail" of the plans before deciding whether or not to support calls for a leadership contest.

She said the common rulebook would mean "British businesses will continue to be a rule taker from the EU".

Veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash told BBC's Newsnight he was "deeply disappointed to say the least" and the plans "raise a lot of very serious questions".

Alignment on goods could reduce the UK's flexibility to strike trade deals with other countries, particularly the US which would want an agreement allowing its farm products, produced to different standards, into the British market.

It would also involve the UK paying "due regard" to European Court of Justice rulings relating to the rules Britain will share with Brussels, potentially softening the Prime Minister's red line on the jurisdiction of judges in Luxembourg.

Members of the Cabinet mingle at Chequers
Members of the Cabinet mingle at Chequers Joel Rouse/Crown Copyright/PA

Elements of the plan revealed in a three-page summary include:

- The UK committing to "ongoing harmonisation" with EU rules on goods to ensure frictionless trade at ports and the border with Ireland

- A "joint institutional framework" for the consistent interpretation and application of UK-EU agreements, with British courts ruling on cases in Britain and EU courts in the EU but a joint committee and independent arbitration settling disputes

- A new "facilitated customs arrangement" to remove the need for checks and controls by treating the UK and EU as if they were a "combined customs territory"

- The UK effectively imposing EU tariffs at the border for goods intended for the bloc but able to "control its own tariffs for trade with the rest of the world"

David Davis takes notes as the Prime Minister speaks
David Davis takes notes as the Prime Minister speaks Joel Rouse/Crown Copyright/PA

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: "It is farcical that it has taken two years for the Cabinet to even attempt to agree a position on the basics of our future relationship with the EU.

"On previous form, whatever has apparently been agreed will struggle to survive contact with Tory MPs and members."

Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said: "The Tory Eurosceptics are a waste of space.

"No resignations means that the so-called Brexiteers in Cabinet don't have a principle between them, career politicians all."

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