LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May touted the benefits of her latest Brexit proposal to create a partial free trade zone between the U.K. and the European Union, saying Saturday it is possible EU citizens would receive preferential treatment for employment after Britain leaves the bloc.
May told the BBC that the plan, which her fractious Cabinet endorsed after a marathon meeting, would allow Britain to make good on its Brexit commitments while still protecting British economic interests.
She said the commitment to end the free movement of people would be met, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the U.K. would be curtailed, and the U.K. no longer would send “vast sums of money” to the EU every year.
These and other provisions would meet the public expectations for what Brexit would entail, she said.
“But we’ll do it in a way that protects … and enhances our economy for the future,” May said.
She said her government would “decide” whether EU citizens would receive special consideration to live and work in Britain after the country leaves the EU, a prospect that may anger people in the U.K. who favor a complete break and a substantial reduction in immigration.
The government says the new plan agreed to by the Cabinet late Friday will be detailed in a formal government document next week and negotiated with EU leaders. May hopes it will jumpstart the acrimonious discussions about the terms of Brexit.
May is seeking to squelch public dissent from Conservative Party colleagues by warning ministers she will no longer tolerate public criticism of government policy now that the Cabinet has backed her.
“She’s made it very clear that if people can’t stick to her position then they should go, and I think that’s good,” Conservative Party legislator Nicky Morgan said Saturday.
May said after the Cabinet meeting that her ministers Cabinet endorsed plans for a future free-trade deal with the European Union that would keep some close ties to the bloc even as it ends freedom of movement between Britain and the EU. The proposal would allow free movement of goods, but not of services.
The agreement hammered out at the prime minister’s country residence resolves – for the moment – a long-running dispute within the Cabinet over whether to sever all ties with the EU or seek a more limited Brexit to help businesses accustomed to trading with continental Europe without customs payments or burdensome paperwork.
Since becoming prime minister nearly two years ago, May – whose party does not enjoy a majority in Parliament – has endured outspoken criticism from senior ministers, most notably Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who wants a total rupture with the EU.
She has now signaled however, in a letter to Conservative Party legislators, that ministers who dissent in public will be dismissed now that “collective responsibility” has been restored.
The plan brings May squarely down on the side those favoring a “soft” Brexit that would make it easier for many businesses to operate without new barriers being erected between Britain and continental Europe.
It’s unclear how EU negotiators will react to the plan, which seems to fly in the face of EU warnings that the UK cannot pick and choose which aspects of EU membership it would like to keep, and it is already angering hard-line Brexiteers who advocate a total break with the EU.
Conservative legislator Jacob Rees-Mogg said he is waiting to see details but would vote against the plan if it retains too many ties to the EU.
“This will require legislation and if, when we get the detailed legislation, it turns out that it is a punishment Brexit, that it is keeping us in the European Union in all but name, I will stick to the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments and will not vote for it,” he told the BBC.
He said May’s plan may be worse than leaving the EU without any deal at all.
“As with eggs: An egg that is very softly boiled isn’t boiled at all. A very soft Brexit means that we haven’t left, we are simply a rule-taker. That is not something that this country voted for, it is not what the prime minister promised,” he said.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Saturday the new plan may well “unravel” in the coming days.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, an outspoken opponent of Brexit, tweeted that the proposal contains “more realism” than earlier plans and may be a step forward. But she made it clear she would lobby for more changes.
But some business leaders say the plan would bring badly needed clarity to the muddled Brexit talks with the EU.
Business Secretary Greg Clark says the plan is “very positive” and would allow business supply chains to operate without new barriers, helping protect British jobs.
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