Johnson met Cameron for private meeting before Chequers summit

Foreign secretary and ex-PM agree May’s Brexit plans are ‘the worst of all worlds’

Boris Johnson met David Cameron for a private meeting before the Chequers summit, where they both discussed the controversial customs arrangements Theresa May put before ministers.

The foreign secretary met the ex-prime minister on Thursday evening, after a caucus of seven cabinet members met at the Foreign Office to discuss their concerns about plans for regulatory alignment with the EU post Brexit proposed by May.

One source said that Johnson and Cameron agreed the plans presented by the prime minister were “the worst of all worlds”. Johnson told his old school friend he should finally take pride in Brexit, having called the referendum, rather than continuing to express doubts.

That was disputed by other sources, who suggested instead that Cameron talked Johnson out of quitting the cabinet over the issue – and that the former prime minister supported May’s efforts to find a resolution of the issue.

Other ministers attending the earlier Thursday caucus meeting were Michael Gove, Penny Mordaunt, Andrea Leadsom, David Davis, Esther McVey and Liam Fox. Sources said those present discussed their concerns ahead of the meeting, based on what they had read from the preliminary paperwork.

After the caucus, May also summoned Fox and Davis to try to reassure them going into the summit, suggesting there may have been a concerted attempt to hose down hardline Brexiters in cabinet. Reports suggested that Fox in particular had been placated over drinks.

Pro-Brexit ministers are mostly anxious about the suggestion the UK should maintain a common rulebook with the EU on food and farming standards, which could make striking a US trade deal more difficult, where standards are lower on products such as chlorinated chicken.

The customs issue was expected to be the thorniest to be debated at the Brexit summit at Chequers. The meeting began at 10am and is due to run for about 12 hours with a working dinner, with the aim of signing off a strategy white paper to be published next week.

Downing Street is attempting to prevent leaks by asking cabinet members to hand in their mobile phones and their own special advisers were not invited. All ministers who attend cabinet – a total of 29 people – were present, Number 10 said.

Olly Robbins, Number 10’s chief Brexit adviser, is also present while civil servants are on hand for emergency redrafting of the white paper. Three members of Number 10’s own communications team are also present.

Downing Street sources have pointed out that Gove has already ruled out lowering UK standards in order to secure trade deals, including on poultry and other products such as hormone-treated beef, saying there would be a backlash from British consumers.

The previous sentence from the same document makes explicit that sticking closely to EU standards does 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.”

Sources said the paperwork presented to ministers said British consumers wanted high food standards and said this “would not allow the UK to accommodate a likely ask from the US in a future trade deal”.

Throughout the day, ministers are scheduled to discuss the current negotiating position of the EU, the proposed UK approach, as well as contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. Over dinner, the theme is “communicating the UK’s vision”. A late finish is expected, with the earliest departures likely to be 10pm, unless there are resignations.


Jessica Elgot Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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