Mrs May faced down Eurosceptic critics, including foreign secretary Boris Johnson, as she pushed through a new Brexit plan that would keep Britain closely tied to the EU single market on goods and agriculture and within the EU’s customs territory.
“We will deliver on Brexit but we also do so in a way that is in a good deal for Britain,” Mrs May told BBC News.
According to those who attended the all-day meeting at the prime minister’s country residence, Eurosceptic ministers “grumbled” about the proposal but recognised they could not stop it or even change it substantially.
“I think what was crucial yesterday was that we had a very good discussion, a very detailed discussion and yes, we agreed the position that we can now all take forward as a government, Mrs May said. “And the challenge now is if you like to the European Union.”
Mr Johnson is said to have ultimately spoken in favour of the agreement over dinner at Chequers. “There was a sense of realpolitik — a feeling that we just need to break through the logjam,” said one person briefed on the meeting.
Mrs May’s decision to restore cabinet responsibility on Brexit is intended to prevent Mr Johnson and other colleagues disparaging the agreement after they had left the Buckinghamshire estate; any minister who criticises the Chequers deal would be liable to be sacked.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the influential European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservatives, said he wanted to see more details and warned that he would not vote for a plan which crossed the red lines set out in the Tories’ election manifesto.
He said Mrs May’s plan could make “trade deals almost impossible” if it meant regulations would have to apply to any goods coming into the UK.
“It is possible that this deal is worse” than a “no deal” Brexit he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner said there was a danger that the plan had been drafted to hold the cabinet together rather than to secure a strong negotiating position with the EU “that will create jobs, that will create growth in our economy”.
Mrs May’s proposals, while far from acceptable to the EU, have been widely seen across Europe as a serious attempt to unlock stalled negotiations in Brussels. David Davis, Brexit secretary, will begin an EU tour next week to sell the ideas.
Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, tweeted: “Chequers discussion on future to be welcomed. I look forward to White Paper. We will assess proposals to see if they are workable and realistic in view of European Council guidelines.”
The 120-page white paper will include a proposal to keep Britain tied to the EU’s single market for goods and agriculture through a “common rule book” and in a complex “facilitated customs agreement”; both are intended to remove friction at the border, including in Ireland.