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The UK prime minister is under pressure to meld together competing visions of Brexit, and in a telling detail that highlights her political weakness, May asked ministers to allow her to make last-minute changes to the text.
Over the course of a two-hour meeting with senior figures, everyone weighed in on what May should say, with the premier agreeing to make tweaks to accommodate euroskeptics on one side and the pro-EU camp on the other, according to one official familiar with the deliberations.
May wants to settle the question of Britain’s place in Europe for a generation, but the risk is that in trying to please rival wings of her party she’ll fail to provide negotiators in Brussels with the clarity they insist on with just over a year to go before the UK and the EU part ways.
The EU has already rejected what it had seen of May’s strategy as unacceptable cherry picking, but she will stick to her demands for a tailor-made deal on Friday. And make the following point: people voted for a different relationship with the EU “but while the means may change our shared goals surely have not – to work together to grow our economies and keep our people safe.”
“I want the broadest and deepest possible agreement – covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any Free Trade Agreement anywhere in the world today,” May will say Friday, according to extracts briefed by her office. “Rather than having to bring two different systems closer together, the task will be to manage the relationship once we are two separate legal systems.”
The need to fudge a UK position squaring the contradictory demands of her ministers meant the extracts released by her office hint at where she could compromise: for example, making the protection of jobs one of her key goals in the negotiations.
May is taking a line straight from opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn’s playbook. He has consistently said Labour’s priority is to secure a "jobs-first" Brexit: an eventual agreement “must protect people’s jobs and security”
The other four tests of success May will set in her speech are:
. The deal must see Britain regain control of its laws, borders and money, while recognizing the referendum “was not a vote for a distant relationship with our neighbors.”
. The agreement must be enduring and not lead to endless future negotiations.
. It must be consistent with Britain remaining a “modern, open, outward-looking, tolerant” nation that stands up for its values while meeting international obligations.
. The deal “must strengthen our union of nations and our union of people.”
The last of those goals will be seen as an olive branch to the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland, which have disagreed with her approach.
The line on jobs also marks an evolution in May’s position on Brexit: In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum, she sought to emphasize the importance of controlling immigration, and focused less on minimizing the potential economic damage caused by Brexit.
The source of biggest friction in Thursday’s cabinet meeting was how close Britain should remain to the bloc’s regulations after Brexit.
Some pro-EU ministers like Greg Clark want her to make a binding commitment to align Britain’s rules and regulations in key industry sectors with those of the European single market. Others, including Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pushed back against this idea.
Absent from the excerpts was any mention of post-Brexit arrangements for tariff-free trade, which has dominated the discussion ever since Corbyn gave his own Brexit speech on Monday endorsing “a” customs union.
It’s a sign of just how tense and technical talks have become that there is controversy in drawing a distinction between “the” or “a” customs union. The premier insists neither is possible because both would rule out the ability to strike free trade deals further afield.
The broader point is that there is now a tangible divide between the two main parties and that Corbyn’s shift could spell potentially damaging parliamentary defeats for May if Labour and pro-EU Tories join forces.