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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Britain's May seeks to unite Cabinet before key Brexit speech

Prime Minister Theresa May met with her warring ministers ahead of her landmark Brexit speech in Florence on Friday

British Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - usually seen at opposite ends of the government's hard/soft Brexit axis - depart together after a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.
British Chancellor Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson - usually seen at opposite ends of the government's hard/soft Brexit axis - depart together after a Cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017.

British Prime Minister Theresa May held talks with her ministers on Thursday aimed at restoring Cabinet unity ahead of her hotly anticipated Brexit speech in Florence on Friday.

The Florence event is being seen as an attempt to break the deadlock in negotiations, which have stalled over issues such as the “divorce bill”, the rights of European citizens in the UK and the role of the EU courts.

Brussels is hoping Mrs May will end the logjam with an offer on Britain's financial settlement, which it says is owed upon its departure from the bloc.

The Financial Times reported this week that she may be willing to offer a sum of around 20 billion euros.

If confirmed, that would still fall well below the amount that Brussels is said to be looking for – around 60 billion euros.

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Further details are also expected on a transitional deal, between the date of Britain's official exit in March 2019 and the start of new trading arrangements with the EU.

“What I will be doing on Friday is setting out an update on where we are and looking ahead in the negotiations,” Mrs May told reporters at the United Nations General Assembly this week. “The Council has given a mandate to the Commission, which has appointed Michel Barnier, but the decision will be taken by leaders.”

The comments were taken as an indication that Mrs May is hoping to appeal to the EU’s other 27 heads of government, in an attempt to break the stalemate.

However, EU officials have previously warned against attempts to "divide and rule" the bloc, which has so far shown remarkable unity on the issue of Brexit.

Thursday’s Cabinet meeting was also an attempt by Mrs May to unite her own government, after a damaging intervention by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson which highlighted the differences between ministers over Brexit.

Mr Johnson threw himself back into the Brexit debate last weekend, penning a 4,000 word newspaper article that outlined what he called a "glorious" vision for Britain outside of the EU.

The Foreign Secretary’s intervention led to accusations that he was plotting to replace Mrs May, while others reported that he planned to quit if his blueprint was not followed.

Speaking to reporters at the UN, Mr Johnson denied the reports and insisted his article was merely an “opening drumroll” for Mrs May’s upcoming speech in Florence.

He also stressed the unity in the government, describing it as "a nest of singing birds".

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The Prime Minister shrugged off the row, saying: “Boris is Boris”. During a visit to Canada this week, she insisted that her Cabinet is united over Brexit, and that the government is being driven from the front.

But the reality is that she is treading a fine line, as she seeks to keep the warring sides within the Conservative Party from tearing her government apart.

This week’s row only served to highlight the splits further, with the “three Brexiteers” – Mr Johnson, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Trade Secretary Liam Fox – favouring a clean break from the EU, while the likes of Chancellor Philip Hammond are championing a softer Brexit, including a lengthy transition period for businesses.

Mrs May sought to put on a show of unity with Mr Johnson as they attended the UN event in New York. The pair flew back to the UK together on Wednesday night, landing at dawn before Thursday’s cabinet meeting.

The meeting – which lasted two and a half hours – ended in what appeared to be a carefully orchestrated show of unity, with Mr Johnson and Mr Hammond seen leaving Number 10 together, smiling to waiting reporters.

The Prime Minister’s former co-chief of staff, Nick Timothy, warned that her speech in Florence will not generate “an immediate breakthrough” in the Brexit talks.

Writing in The Telegraph on Thursday, Mr Timothy – who oversaw Mrs May’s last big speech on Brexit at Lancaster House in January – said: “Nobody should anticipate an immediate breakthrough. In public, the Europeans will be surly. Expect negative briefing from the commission, sarcasm from Guy Verhofstadt, and a polite but not positive reply from Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker.”

However, Mr Timothy said there was a chance that EU leaders would be more positive in private. He also claimed that Mrs May’s likely olive branch on the divorce bill, “on condition that the price is reasonable and our future relationship is agreed” - should “prompt further talks that will get the negotiators to stage two”.

Stage two refers to the next chapter in the talks, which will be on the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU. But officials in Brussels have insisted that such talks cannot commence until sufficient headway is made on the issue of money, EU citizens’ rights and the Irish border.

The fourth round of Brexit talks is due to begin on September 25, after the last session in August broke up without significant progress.