YESTERDAY’S crisis Cabinet meeting, billed as a showdown between diehard Brexiteers and Remainers, ended, to quote Boris Johnson, like “a nest of singing birds”.
It was a bizarre show of artificial unity which failed to conceal the rift at the heart of Theresa May’s Government.
But it marked a victory of sorts for the Foreign Secretary, who last week blew the lid off plans to keep Britain as a member of the European Union in all but name.
Brexit Secretary David Davis seemed on side until he saw the enthusiastic reception for BoJo’s upbeat intervention among grassroots Tories. With the Conservative Party conference only weeks away, he dived for cover.
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“DD was very quiet at Cabinet today,” said an observer.
Bojo’s newspaper article last Saturday triggered an astonishing policy re-think. There will be no Swiss or Norwegian or Canadian-style relationship once we leave.
Once out, we will forge a bespoke deal of our own instead.
Mrs M will make an “open and generous” offer for Britain to meet its obligations to what it owes — expected to be about £20billion.
But there are still fears over what they see as a sly campaign by the Chancellor and Whitehall mandarins to sabotage the referendum vote to take back control.
Hammond and Heywood are furious, their cover has been blown
Senior Government source
Under proposals for a Swiss-style scheme, the UK would have retained access to the single market but would have still been bound by EU rules.
“Hammond and Heywood are furious,” said a senior source. “Their cover has been blown. The Deep State of the British Government is still trying to frustrate the Brexit process.”
The Cabinet appeared to end in harmony but ministers have been told to come back again after the party conferences for further talks.
“This is the biggest issue facing this country and yet we are simply not debating it,” said a minister.
The row has exposed bitter divisions between Brexit ministers, the Chancellor and Sir Jeremy, head of the civil service.
Known as “Sir Cover-Up”, Sir Jeremy is blamed for masterminding the dubious Project Fear campaign to derail Brexit in last year’s referendum.
He is suspected of undermining the traditionally neutral Office for National Statistics by sending it into battle against Bojo’s reiterated call to spend on the NHS some of the £350million Britain will take back control of from the EU.
“Hammond and Heywood are furious that they have been exposed to the public eye,” one insider said last night.
The row over the article has raged all week, with Mrs May being blamed for failing to take a grip.
It was fuelled by revelations that one of the key officials answerable to the PM and Sir Jeremy is a fan of Stalin’s communist Russia. Olly Robbins, who works in Downing Street, was embarrassed by the publication of an essay he wrote as a student at Oxford.
He expressed admiration for the repressive Soviet Union which, under Stalin, cost the lives of an estimated 20million Russian people.
In his 1990s essay, Mr Robbins hailed Russia for its “fair education, housing and healthcare” while condemning capitalist greed.
“The demise of the Soviet experiment means . . . there appears to be no alternative to the mad excesses of modern capitalism,” he argued.
The revelation sparked suspicion among Eurosceptics, many of whom see the European Union as a non-military version of the communist dream.
Ex-Labour MP Gisela Stuart, one of the leaders of the official Vote Leave campaign, yesterday joined in the protest about the role of secretive civil servants.
“We hear disturbing reports about the behaviour of senior British officials — the same people who helped peddle absurdities such as the prediction of an immediate recession,” she said.
“They are telling the PM that even after a transition period the UK should continue to accept European laws, regulation of our economy by Brussels and EU control of our borders.
“Their hope seems to be that if they can bind the UK’s hands tightly enough, we won’t really leave or we could even be bullied into becoming a member again.
“Of course we want a good relationship with our European friends. But we do not have to accept EU law to be friends.”
Now ministers, including some of her allies, want Theresa May to take command and set up a unit in Downing Street directly answerable to her rather than Sir Cover-Up.
She is being urged to put all other issues to one side while she concentrates on the biggest national issue facing any Prime Minister in peacetime.
Time is running out. Britain needs to clear the decks and establish a vast new array of computerised legal and commercial systems to avoid gridlock at docks, air and sea ports.
The job should already be well under way. Thanks to Chancellor Philip Hammond, we now risk allowing the economy to plunge into chaos.