Theresa May was battling to see off a revolt on the eve of a critical cabinet summit, as Boris Johnson convened a meeting of pro-Brexit ministers to discuss their options amid an atmosphere of tension and recrimination.
The government was forced to deny “selective leaks” that appeared to suggest that the UK could struggle to strike a trade deal with the US in the future.
No 10 insisted that paperwork released to ministers ahead of Friday’s crunch Brexit meeting at Chequers said just the opposite – as a caucus of seven cabinet members including Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox and David Davis met at the Foreign Office to discuss their concerns.
An early leak suggested that the UK should “maintain a common rulebook” with the European Union on food and farming standards and that could make striking a trade deal with the more free market-oriented US more difficult as a result.
That prompted a series of complaints from backbench Tory MPs and led to the Thursday evening meeting at the Foreign Office hosted by Johnson, the foreign secretary.
Sources at No 10 said there had been selective leaks from the paperwork and the controversial passage appeared on page 15 out of 50 from one of several documents sent to all members of the cabinet.
The sources said the paperwork simply reflected that British consumers wanted high food standards and that this could be a sticking point in trade talks with the US. “[This] would not allow the UK to accommodate a likely ask from the US in a future trade deal,” the paperwork said.
The previous sentence from the same document makes explicit that sticking closely to EU standards did not rule out the possibility of signing free trade deals with other countries. It reads: “A commitment to the single standards model [with the EU] would not be a barrier to accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership”.
The summit at Chequers, the Buckinghamshire retreat of the prime minister, is due to begin shortly after 10am. It is intended that members of the cabinet will sign off a white paper due to be published next week outlining the government’s post-Brexit strategy.
The buildup to the summit has been dominated by Tory infighting over trade. May’s team is hoping to end a customs deadlock with a new “facilitated customs arrangement” proposal in which the UK levy would have its own tariffs on goods entering or leaving the country and refund the difference if the products were destined for elsewhere in the EU.
Downing Street’s attempt at reassurance came after complaints from backbench Tory MPs voicing concern about the proposed regulatory alignment, following a leak to the Spectator magazine.
David Jones, a former Brexit minister, said: “This is entirely unacceptable. It would lock UK into customs union and single market in perpetuity. To proceed along such a path would be wholly contrary to the national interest. I hope and expect the cabinet to reject it. This is not what people voted for in 2016. This is not Brexit.”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the backbench European Research Group, said: “If this is correct this is not Brexit. This common rulebook means that we are essentially a vassal state.” He suggested May should simply tear up the paper.
The group of pro-Brexit ministers who then gathered at the Foreign Office also included Esther McVey, Penny Mordaunt and Andrea Leadsom.
Meanwhile, cabinet members who support a soft Brexit indicated that they intended to fight their corner. Prominent soft Brexiters include the chancellor, Philip Hammond, Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, the business secretary, Greg Clark, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley.
On Thursday night, May released a statement saying the cabinet would meet “to agree the shape of our future relationship with the European Union”. She said it was time “for another step forward” and highlighted plans to strike international trade deals.
“We want a deal that allows us to deliver the benefits of Brexit – taking control of our borders, laws and money and by signing ambitious new trade deals with countries like the US, Australia and New Zealand,” May added.
Earlier, May flew to Berlin to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. No 10 insisted that Merkel was not given a detailed preview of Friday’s cabinet discussions, although May had said the UK was about to propose “a substantial way forward” that would “enable the pace and intensity of negotiations to increase”.
It also emerged that separately, Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, had last week written to the EU saying that its rigid Brexit negotiating strategy was making it difficult to strike a security deal with the UK. Operating independently of Merkel, the leader of the CSU party told the European commission it should ensure that “the security of citizens in Europe [takes] precedence over all other aspects of exit negotiations”.
There has been speculation that the Chequers summit could could be marred by cabinet resignations. However, there are immediate reasons why this may not be an attractive option: any minister who quits on the spot would lose access to their ministerial car, meaning that they would have to walk several miles to the nearest train station.