The outcome of the crunch summit of the full cabinet at Chequers to finally agree the Brexit white paper may not be known until late in the evening. Following are several possible outcomes that could be served up after the working dinner.
May faces down her rebel ministers
The mood in No 10 was bullish on Friday morning and ministers were warned that should they resign, “their spots will be taken by a talented new generation of MPs who will sweep them away”.
The Brexit purists in the cabinet are firmly in the minority – about six out of 25 – with the prime minister appearing to have cooled off some pro-leave ministers, including Liam Fox.
Behind her, May has not just the soft Brexiters, such as Philip Hammond and Greg Clark, but also key loyalists, such as Karen Bradley, David Lidington, Damian Hinds and James Brokenshire.
If the born-again Brexiters in the mix, such as Sajid Javid or Gavin Williamson, decide to back the prime minister, and she has the determination to see the plan through, she may have enough leverage. “No 10 seem determined to double down,” one pessimistic Brexiter said.
Brexiters put on the brakes
The group of Brexit-supporting ministers who met overnight, many being veterans of the Vote Leave campaign, will put forward their own plan at Chequers on Friday, including arguments for a Canada-style free trade deal. Red lines are agreed, including on free movement or any obligation to heed the rulings of the European court of justice.
The cohort who met at the Foreign Office are among the most powerful around the cabinet table – – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Penny Mordaunt and Esther McVey – and have significant support from leave-backing MPs in parliament.
Much will depend on the eventual position of Gove, the environment secretary, whose public assurances that food standards will not be lowered is at the heart of one of the key difficulties in signing a US trade deal.
Civil servants are on standby to write redrafts of the white paper as ministers come to an agreement. Key to the cabinet’s survival is allowing both sides to save face.
Therefore it is likely that the final version will mean changing some wording to appease worried ministers.
Key phrases have leaked from paperwork presented to ministers, including that the UK should “maintain a common rulebook” with the European Union on food and farming standards, and that restrictions on agriculture would be “a barrier” to a trade deal, so those selectively briefed phrases may be the ones to watch for.
Cabinet walkouts are unlikely but theoretically possible. Despite some light-hearted briefing that fleeing ex-ministers would have to catch a cab home after losing their ministerial car, No 10 has publicly insisted this will not happen. Of all the ministers who could pull the plug, Johnson and Davis have been the most critical, but sources insist they are not yet on the brink.