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Cabinet looks far from united ahead of Brexit crunch.

Byline: Jonathan Walker

DISCIPLINE within the Government has collapsed - just when it's needed most. Prime Minister Theresa May is to meet with Cabinet colleagues to decide what sort of arrangements the country wants after Brexit.

This includes, for example, the type of customs arrangements we'll have with the EU.

Should the UK be in a Customs Union with the EU? This would allow goods to come into the UK without restriction - something the car industry is desperate for, because it needs easy access to parts manufactured by European suppliers.

On the other hand, it might mean that we have to obey some EU rules, and can't sign our own trade deals with other countries.

Maybe some sort of compromise is possible - where we get all the advantages of a Customs Union but none of the downsides? At last, the Government is, apparently, going to come up with an answer to these questions. And the decisions will be published in a White Paper, currently due on July 9. It's unfortunate - but it may not be a coincidence - that the summit comes just as collective Cabinet responsibility breaks down.

Here are a few examples. Liz Truss, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, delivered a speech attacking Environment Secretary Michael Gove's attempts to reduce air pollution by regulating wood burning stoves - and mocked "macho" calls for more spending, after Home Secretary Sajid Javid called for more money for policing and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson demanded more cash for the armed forces.

Speaking of Mr Williamson, he's demanded PS20bn for defence after the Government confirmed plans to give an extra PS20bn to the NHS, and reportedly threatened to "break" Mrs May if he doesn't get it.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson reportedly responded to business concerns about Brexit with the words "f*** business". And he all but confirmed the reports in the House of Commons, telling MPs he may have "expressed scepticism about some of the views of those who profess to speak up for business". Asked directly what he made of Mr Johnson's remarks, Business Secretary Greg Clark told the House of Commons: "It is the case that we should listen to businesses" - a polite way of telling Mr Johnson where to go.

But Mr Johnson isn't alone in attacking businesses. Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, said at the weekend that "threats" by businesses over Brexit were "completely inappropriate".

Mr Clark responded in a speech to business leaders, telling them to keep on speaking out - to give him ammunition to use in Cabinet battles with hard-Brexit colleagues. He said: "My approach is to be very engaged with business and my responsibility is to obtain data to present it unflinchingly - to argue the case but not to give a commentary on these views. It's important to supply evidence for these discussions."

Why is this happening now? It's partly because the Government is reaching a point where it must make difficult decisions about Brexit.

No longer can divisive issues be kicked into the long grass.

So people like Greg Clark, who believe it's essential to achieve a 'softer' Brexit dealing with the concerns of manufacturers, are in conflict with people like Boris Johnson, who believe lobbyists who speak for employers are exaggerating the potential problems.

Secondly, the Conservative Party is almost certain to choose a new leader sometime after Brexit takes place in March 2019 and before the next general election. It's not clear whether Mrs May plans to stand down voluntarily, but if she doesn't then she'll be forced out.

As Brexit day moves closer, so does Theresa May's departure. It means her authority is ebbing away, while potential leadership candidates, or Tories who simply want to influence the future direction of the party, are asserting themselves.

And finally, there's Jeremy Corbyn. Conservatives aren't as terrified of Mr Corbyn as they used to be. Labour's struggle to attract an audience for its Labour Live event suggests young people aren't as enthusiastic about Mr Corbyn as they once appeared.

Labour is also divided over Brexit. Some activists are angry at the party's refusal to support calls for a second Brexit referendum, or even to fight for the full-on 'soft' Brexit which manufacturers say they need.

Conservatives once felt they had to behave themselves, because a divided party was more likely to lead to Mr Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. But rightly or wrongly, they now think that Corbynmania has peaked.

| Jonathan Walker is Political Editor of The Journal.

The Government is reaching a point where it must make difficult Brexit decisions. No longer can issues be kicked into the long grass "

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 29, 2018
Words:773
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