Today’s EU summit serves as another reminder of how much work remains to be done if the UK is to leave the EU with a trade deal in place. With only 274 days remaining, the UK government has made scant progress towards negotiating a deal with the EU, thanks in no small part to the cabinet’s inability to negotiate a vision for Brexit amongst themselves.
From Theresa May’s perspective, the long months of ambiguity have allowed her to preside over a cabinet of leave and remain voting MPs, each with different visions for Brexit, without unduly upsetting or alienating any major players. Clearly though, this situation is not sustainable and eventually the cabinet will have to settle on single, clearly defined plan for Brexit. With the impending finalisation and publication of a Brexit white paper, that day is now fast approaching.
The high-stakes nature of this document has meant the build-up has been fraught; cabinet discipline has lapsed almost to the point of non-existence. Since the Foreign Secretary helpfully dismissed the Prime Minister’s customs union ‘partnership’ plan as crazy in May, cabinet relations have gone from bad to worse. Now the new Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, feels comfortable taking to Twitter to openly criticise Theresa May’s customs union model while at the same time dismantling her legacy at the Home Office. The Health Secretary can one day say that businesses such as Airbus are making ‘completely inappropriate’ threats during negotiations before being directly contradicted in Parliamentary questions by the Business Secretary (while the characteristically decorous Foreign Secretary of the avowedly pro-business Conservative party is separately heard muttering, ‘f*** business’). In fact, the only person who doesn’t appear to have much to say about Brexit is the Brexit Secretary, who really ought to be in charge of the whole thing.
And arguments have not been confined to Brexit policy. As discipline has broken down and punishment has been less than forthcoming, ambitious cabinet ministers have sensed an opportunity to agitate for their own departments. Jeremy Hunt was quick out of the blocks and managed to secure £20 billion for the NHS. The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, sought to quell the inevitable deluge of demands for similar treatment by announcing that there is no extra money left after splashing out on the NHS. This sadly failed to convince Gavin Williamson the Defence Secretary who reportedly threatened to topple the government if he couldn’t get more money to service a department few of his colleagues thought he should be in charge of anyway. Meanwhile Liz Truss took a rare opportunity to deliver a keynote speech at the London School of Economics during which she denounced Williamson’s posturing over budgets and mocked Michael Gove’s running of DEFRA.
As the UK enters a crucial stage of Brexit negotiations, Theresa May’s cabinet is almost out of control. The Brexit white paper represents an opportunity for May to re-instil some discipline and get her cabinet reading from the same script. However, having allowed her cabinet to be so flagrantly insubordinate for so long, May will find this an almost impossible task.