Although there was a clear majority to leave the EU in the referendum both the country and the main political parties are deeply split on what Brexit should look like in practice.
More than forty years of integration was never going to be a simple matter to unpick.
The parliamentary arithmetic
The position of parliament is deeply conflicted in that
* Most MPs voted remain but most consider themselves bound by the referendum decision.
* The MPs on the two extremes - those who actually want a "hard Brexit" in which Britain walks away without a deal and those who really do want to ignore the referendum and stop Brexit happening - are both in the minority, There probably are not more than 60 MPs who want to walk away with no deal and probably less than 200 who are keen to defy the referendum result - not more than 250 at most who are actively in the "Stop Brexit" camp. But both these minorities make so much more noise than the majority who want either some form of "soft Brexit" or at least a deal, that you could be forgiven for mistaking their sound and fury of the two extremes for people who have the votes to back it up.
* Most MPs want either some form of "soft Brexit" or at least a deal in which Britain leaves the EU without completely cutting themselves off from our former partners. Granted this covers a wide range of views from the softest of soft Brexiteers to the likes of David Davis (e.g. those who nobody would describe as "soft" Brexit supporters but who do want a deal.) However, almost all these MPs realise that it would not be a good idea to undermine the government's negotiating position, for example by saying openly that they would never vote to leave the EU with no deal in place.
Hence judging exactly what there is a majority for in parliament is difficult. However, I don't think walking away from the talks would have a cat in hell's chance of getting through parliament, and I don't think an attempt to reverse the Article 50 notification could get through either.
Basically the Remainers and Soft Brexit supporters have outnumber the hard Brexit cupporters by ten to one, and those who want or reluctantly accept Brexit supporters outnumber Remainers by a clear margin, so the hardliners on either extreme do not have the votes to get their position through unless someone seriously overplays or otherwise mismanage their hand.
Ironically the greatest chance of either of a "No deal" hard Brexit or no Brexit at all happening would be through gross incompetence on the part of the people who want the opposite.
The most likely way for a "no deal" Brexit to happen would be if the opponents of Brexit won the battle for their "meaningful vote" on the final deal negotiated by the government, there was then a majority vote to reject the final deal, and then any one of the other 27 EU governments vetoed an extension of the Article 50 notice period, with the result that there is no time to negotiate a new deal before the deadline and the UK crashes out without one.
Similarly the only way I could see Britain not leaving the EU would be if the Brexiteers brought down or completely undermined the government, probably through some sort of botched attempt to get rid of Theresa May, and created such chaos that a vote to cancel the article 50 notification was passed.
Unless the 27 other EU government unanimously agree to extend the Article 50 negotiating period is extended or parliament revokes the Article 50 notification, Britain will automatically leave the EU, with or without a deal, in March 2019, so time to agree a deal is not on our side.
The Chequers agreement on Britain's negotiating position
It is in this context that the cabinet met today at Chequers and finally agreed a negotiating position, of which the main details are as follows:
- The UK would accept continuing "harmonisation" with EU rules on the trade in goods, covering only those necessary to ensure frictionless trade
- Parliament would have the final say over how these rules are incorporated into UK law, retaining the right to refuse to do so
- There will be different arrangements for trade in services, including financial products, with greater "regulatory flexibility" and "strong reciprocal arrangements"
- Freedom of movement as it stands will come to an end but a "mobility framework" will ensure UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other's territories and apply for study and work
- A new customs arrangement will be phased in, with the goal of "a combined customs territory"
- The UK will be able to control its own tariffs and develop an independent trade policy
- The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will end but the UK will pay regard to its decisions in areas where common rules were in force.
"Of course we still have work to do with the EU in ensuring that we get to that end point in October. But this is good we have come today, following our detailed discussions, to a positive future for the UK," she said.