What to expect from Chequers?

Chequers Image copyright Getty Images

The art of predicting what happens in important private political meetings is tricky at best, and pointless at worst.

So as Theresa May gathers her close colleagues together at Chequers on Thursday, making guesses - even educated ones - about what will be achieved is imprecise.

But let's take that gamble.

It is safe to say that the differences in the cabinet are real, if not as dramatic and dastardly - or indeed as straightforward - as portrayed.

It is, therefore, also safe to say that getting to a clear, detailed and bold picture after months of tensions, in one day, is unlikely if not impossible.

And if very much is to move forward and be agreed it will either require, as one minister gently lamented, "the PM to actually make a decision", overtly, on her own position and force others along - or for others to budge.

One former minister described the situation as this: "If everyone is happy it's a fudge. If anything's genuinely decided someone has to be unhappy.

"Either Philip Hammond has to agree that he is signed up to divergence, or Boris Johnson has to agree that he can accept alignment, or, someone resigns."

Number 10 would, of course, not agree with that characterisation.

In recent days, despite the foot-stamping from Brexiteers, there has been a detectable sense around government that a form of agreement - or at least the next steps that look like progress - can be reached on Thursday.

Image copyright Reuters

No-one around SW1 expects a big bust up, or a big flounce out (which would be awkward in any case given that Chequers has a very, very long drive), or public hysterics from anyone in cabinet after the meeting.

And it is fairly likely there will be a sign-off for a slightly more advanced version of what Theresa May spelt out rather cryptically in her speech in Florence all those months ago.

With the catchy title of "managed divergence", that relates to the "three baskets" approach (don't blame me for making up these names).

As we have discussed here before, the UK government wants to offer the EU an approach to the relationship between the two sides after Brexit that goes something like this...

In basket one (I know), there are some areas in which the UK and the EU might want to achieve the same kind of outcomes as before, and the UK would have no problem using exactly the same rules - and ways of following the rules - for good.

Different baskets

Think of aviation, for example. No-one in the industry, or really anyone in government you can find, thinks there is much wrong with being in the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The upheaval of leaving probably isn't worth it - essentially, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

The other way of thinking of this is - same goals, same means. In this particular case, by the way, it is not agreed and the EU is sceptical, but it is likely that the UK will try to find a way to stay in the EASA.

In basket two are areas where the UK might want to have the same goals, but want to get there on its own terms - same goals, different means. An example here might be animal inspection. The UK wants to have the same high standards of animal welfare, potentially they would say, even better conditions and guarantees.

But there is a view in some quarters that the European inspection regime takes too long and costs too much. So the UK might want to set up its own systems to carry out the actual inspections, even though ministers want British pigs and chickens to be just as well looked after (don't mention the chlorine) as their continental cousins. Common standards but different rules.

The third basket is where it gets a lot trickier - where the UK essentially wants to choose what we do and how we do it.

This is probably an over-simplified version of the complexity that's on the table. I am not going to get into the differences between recognition, equivalence, and the rest - there is more jargon out there than anyone could ever wish for, but if it's your thing, my colleague Norman Smith has a great primer here.

And there are other very vexed questions too, not least on customs arrangements, intricately tied to the issue of the Irish border.

One minister told me this week the consequences of leaving the EU after the implementation period without some form of customs arrangement will be graphically spelt out to Brexiteers tomorrow.

Progress needed

This is certainly not exhaustive, and given the levels of secrecy in government about the real details of the plans, it is impossible to be entirely sure what is going on.

But talking to senior government figures, this is the territory where Theresa May hopes to get the cabinet together - with what was described to me as "a little bit of scaring the Brexiteers into compromise".

It is not, repeat not, a final version of the deal the UK will get.

It would be sign-off on a political approach that Theresa May can then put to the EU and, importantly, the public in her next big speech at the end of next week.

There is a whole other question then, about whether Brussels will accept this as an opening offer on our relationship in the future.

What then does Theresa May do if her calibrated compromise (otherwise known as what she could get through) is rejected by the EU?

There have already been reports they are simply not up for it. Over recent months diplomats have suggested to me that they see the three basket approach as messing with the single market.

But without some progress on Thursday, even with a strong flavour of fudge, progress towards a deal on the vital implementation period that business and Number 10 so eagerly wants next month could stall.

PS: Wondering why the document on implementation was so delayed yesterday? Maybe not, but it's interesting, honest.

Cabinet ministers only received the document about the two-year period after Brexit into their red boxes on Tuesday night.

Sources say that some were "deeply unimpressed" by what was in it and the fact that there had been no chance to give it official sign-off or discussion.

Government sources are adamant it was only a write-up of a government policy on the transition that was agreed at a committee meeting on 17 January. Only a skirmish, not a big bust up, but not exactly the sign that all is completely well in the group that is making these big decisions.

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