Strategic observation

News Analysis: Will peace of English country retreat be shattered by shouts of squabbling ministers

2018-07-06 00:13:03 (Beijing Time)


LONDON, July 5 (Xinhua) -- It stands serenely in the peaceful setting of England's Buckinghamshire countryside, an old mansion house that could be a million kilometers from the noisy streets of London.

But that tranquility could be shattered in less than 24 hours, when a convoy of police escorted vehicles makes the 66-kilometer journey from the British capital.

Chequers, the stunning 16th century English manor house, is the country retreat, a bolt-hole for the Prime Ministers of Britain where they can escape the Westminster bubble.

Friday will see Prime Minister Theresa May hosting an away-day meeting of the entire team of her frontline ministers for what will be one of the most crucial gatherings to take place at Chequers.

On the agenda will be the deal May wants to present to the European Union, spelling out her plans for Britain's relationship with Brussels after it ends its membership of the 28-nation trading bloc.

Nestled in deep countryside at the end of a long driveway, Chequers, a gift to the nation at the end of World War One, will ensure May and her warring ministers will battle it out away from the ears and eyes of journalists.

May wants the meeting to thrash out the government's Brexit blueprint, with one leading newspaper saying she will keep her team of ministers at the retreat until they have reached agreement on what it wants its future relationship with the European Union after Brexit to look like.

Her problem is the wide chasm in the opinions of her ministers, some wanting a soft Brexit that would continue some form of close links with the EU, others wanting Britain to go its own way, unshackled by the rules and regulations of Brussels.

Many of her backbench foot soldiers are also keeping a watchful on what happens at Chequers.

A group of more than 40 Eurosceptic MPs held what was described as a stormy meeting with Julian Smith, the Conservative Party's chief whip. They warned him they would not accept a deal that keeps Britain in the EU in all but name, the Independent newspaper reported Thursday.

The Brexit Secretary David Davis has written to May, warning that her latest plan for Brexit to be presented at the Chequers meeting on Friday is unworkable, says the Daily Telegraph. According to the newspaper, Davis says he has concerns May's so-called "third way" plan will be rejected out of hand by the EU.

Downing Street has told a media briefing that the new plan, known as the "facilitated customs arrangement", would allow Britain to set its own tariffs on goods arriving into the UK. Technology would be used to determine where the goods will ultimately end up -- and therefore whether UK or EU tariffs should be paid.

The Telegraph's Europe Editor, Peter Foster, in a commentary Thursday says Europe must help May create a "third way" on Brexit or face a catastrophic rupture.

Foster wrote: "The shape of Theresa May's preferred customs plan after Brexit is now becoming clear, but while some Brexiteers cry 'betrayal' at home, in Europe exasperation is rising to the point where there is now open hostility towards her attempt to find a middle path."

Ahead of the Chequers gathering, May headed to Berlin Thursday for a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss her ideas for the relationship she wants Britain and the EU to have after Brexit. It was her final "charm offensive" meetings with top European leaders ahead of her Chequers showdown.

Political commentators say May is having to juggle between what Brussels will accept, while at the same time winning over her senior ministers while they squabble over a hard or a soft Brexit.

To add to May's woes, there was a stark warning Thursday from Britain's biggest car maker, Jaguar land Rover.

The company, owned by India-base Tata Motors, warned a bad Brexit deal would threaten its investment plans for the UK worth more than 106 billion U.S. dollars, and may force it to close factories.

Rebecca Long Bailey, shadow business secretary for the main opposition Labor Party said: "This stark warning from one of the jewels in the crown of British automotive manufacturing should be a klaxon call to Theresa May and her cabinet. They cannot continue to spar with each other and play ideological games whilst British jobs and industries are being pushed off the edge of a cliff."

Early next week the government will outline its latest Brexit proposals, but hints of what is in store will dominate the headlines before then as news leaks out about the events at May's country retreat.