London, England – British Prime Minister Theresa May has told her cabinet to hold its nerve amid an impasse with the European Union over a potential Brexit deal.
May said her proposal – the so-called Chequers plan – was the only viable deal on the table, her office said in a statement on Monday after the cabinet meeting.
“At the same time, the government will continue to sensibly plan for no deal,” the statement added.
Monday’s meeting took place amid fears among ministers that the ties binding Northern Ireland and Scotland to the United Kingdom are now at risk.
Concerns were heightened by May’s humiliating trip last week to Salzburg, Austria, where EU leaders rejected the prime minister’s proposals for a future relationship with the bloc.
Members of May’s cabinet were expected to demand that she comes up with a “Plan B”.
She had crafted her ill-fated “Chequers” blueprint to resolve deep divisions within her party over the UK’s relationship with Europe that have been exacerbated by the issue of the border between Northern Ireland, which is controlled by the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Her government and the EU have both committed themselves to avoiding the creation of a physical or “hard” border for customs checks in order to safeguard a peace process forged in the troubled province in 1998 after 30 years of paramilitary violence.
In an effort to prevent customs checks, the Chequers plan proposed keeping the whole of the UK in Europe’s single market for food and goods – but EU leaders roundly rejected this as a threat to the “European project”.
Their forthright position stymied May just a week before she is due to address her party’s conference in Birmingham and was likened by senior colleagues to the infamous 1956 Suez crisis that underlined Britain’s end-of-empire loss of influence.
In a statement on Friday, May said: “Throughout this process, I have treated the EU with nothing but respect. The UK expects the same. A good relationship at the end of this process depends on it.”
Boris Johnson, Britain’s former foreign secretary, wrote in his column for the Telegraph newspaper on Monday: “If we go with the Chequers approach, the public will spot it.
“They will see that the UK has become a vassal state, that we have not taken back control, but lost control.”
He warned that the Labour Party may win votes if the Chequers plan is pursued.
“They will take their revenge at the polls,” he wrote.
“I am afraid that Chequers = surrender; Chequers = a sense of betrayal; Chequers = the return of [the far-right UK Independence Party]; Chequers = Corbyn.”
With the Chequers plan all but dead, May has both talked up the prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal and come under pressure from ministers and Brexit supporters to back another option based on a looser free-trade agreement between Brussels and Canada.
However, both would stumble on the Irish border issue because they would imply customs checks – something May, Brussels and the Irish government are desperate to avoid.
Carolyn Fairbairn, the head of the main UK employer’s organisation, the Confederation of British Industry, rejected the prospect of a Canada free-style deal, which she said could put thousands of jobs at risk.
She told journalists: “It would introduce friction at borders, it would not solve the Irish border, it would damage the supply chains on which thousands and thousands of jobs depend.
“It’s a seductive idea but it is not the answer for Britain … It would be the first free-trade deal in history that actually increased barriers to trade and did not reduce them.”
Moreover, May is constrained in her ability to compromise with the EU – by letting Northern Ireland stay in its customs union to avoid a hard border – by the province’s small Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her Conservative government.
The DUP insists that any deal making an exception for the province effectively creates a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – symbolically ending their union.
While the Scottish people rejected independence in a vote in 2014, observers believe Brexit changes the equation – and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon insists her country remain in the EU single market.
Polls suggest that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a majority of Northern Irish citizens would vote to scrap the border that separates them from the Irish Republic, and Scottish voters would rally to the independence cause.
The crunch meeting comes as the opposition Labour Party faces a week of discord over its EU policy pitting leaders gambling May will fall against members who want a rerun of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
While the Labour Party has sought to capitalise on Conservative infighting, its own divisions over Brexit will surface this week at its annual conference in Liverpool, where a record 140 Brexit motions demanding another referendum have been submitted.
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Sunday reluctantly conceded in a TV interview that he would accept a second referendum if members back it – a significant move because polls suggest this could earn Labour a surge in votes that could sweep it into power.
However, Labour’s old guard insists the UK must leave the EU in order to respect the vote taken in 2016 and that their real priority is to win power in a general election if the badly weakened May now falls.
David Lammy, a Labour MP, tweeted late on Sunday: “We can sit back and allow the Tory government to wreck our country through Brexit. Or we can listen to our members and back a #PeoplesVote, which gives the option to remain in the EU.”
More than 100 delegates from trade unions and local parties have agreed to keeping the option of a second referendum on the table.
The conference is expected to pass the motion on Tuesday.
Speaking on the BBC on Monday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell insisted any vote would be on the deal the UK secures with the EU on the terms of its withdrawal and would not give voters the option of remaining.
“They have to respect the result of the referendum,” he said.