Theresa May has given ministers the green light to draw up secret plans for a “grey Brexit” that will steer Britain away from the black-and-white demands of “leave” and “remain” hardliners.
Senior Whitehall sources say David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and Philip Hammond, the chancellor, have formed a “small clique” with Downing Street to drive Britain away from a hard exit.
Cabinet sources said Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, and Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, have been bounced into conceding that Britain could keep paying into the Brussels budget even after Brexit.
They accused Davis and May of engineering an “ambush” when Davis told MPs on Thursday that Britain could make financial contributions — and was promptly backed up by Downing Street.
Cabinet sources say that plans are now being drawn up to pay specific fees for specific benefits from Brussels rather than making general payments to the EU.
Allies of Fox and Johnson last night indicated they are reluctantly prepared to study the plans.
A source close to Fox said: “If it was absolutely clear what we were buying, the specific things we were paying for, he would be prepared to look at it.”
Johnson was expected to concede in television interviews today that the payments plan is on the table. “If you are paying in for a very clear monetary value for the UK, possibly, but we’d really have to have a look at it,” a source said.
Ultimately the foreign secretary played down the idea, describing it as “pure speculation,” but said everything was under consideration. On a tour of TV studios he supported paying into European programmes like the Erasmus student exchange and Horizon research scheme, but told The Andrew Marr Show that Brexit would mean “very large sums of money” would return to Britain.
Johnson denied claims that he supported free movement but broke ranks with the prime minister by calling for foreign students to be removed from net migration figures. May has long resisted the move despite pressure from members of the cabinet.
“It’s a great compliment to this country that, as Theresa and I have found virtually everywhere you go, the number one question people ask is ‘How can I make sure my kids are going to be able to come to the UK and come to university here?’,” Johnson told ITV’s Peston on Sunday.
May will come under renewed pressure today after 200 business leaders warned her to “get on with” Brexit.
In a letter to the prime minister, the company bosses say it is “vital” that she sticks to her pledge to declare article 50 by the end of March and “preferably sooner”.
They warn that being pushed off course would damage investment and trade and cost jobs.
The letter was put together by the Brexit pressure groups Leave Means Leave and Change Britain — the first time the two rivals have co-operated.
They write: “It is now vital that article 50 is triggered within the government’s time frame — no later than March 31, 2017, but preferably sooner — so that the country can get on with leaving the European Union and businesses and investors can plan accordingly.”
Prominent signatories include Lord Young of Graffham, who was David Cameron’s enterprise adviser; City tycoons Peter Cruddas, Sir Michael Hintze, Jim Mellon and Michael Spencer; the impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh; the JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin and the leading entrepreneur Luke Johnson.
Tomorrow the attorney-general will urge the Supreme Court to overturn a ruling by the High Court giving MPs a say on when the government triggers article 50.
Jeremy Corbyn said yesterday that Labour will attempt to amend any “Brexit bill” to protect Britain’s access to EU markets and workers’ rights.
A Tory spokesman said: “Yet again, Labour have shown they want to frustrate the will of the British people by slowing down the process of leaving the European Union and trying to tie the government’s hands in a negotiation.”
December 4th, 2016: Times