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What the cabinet decided on Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May outside 10 Downing Street. Credit: PA

This cabinet meeting achieved one big thing: it helped the PM to avoid too much undiplomatic language in the latest instalment tomorrow of her offer to the rest of the EU on Brexit terms.

But, I am told, neither the Borises or the Hammonds - my shorthand for the enthusiastic and reluctant Brexiteers respectively - shifted Theresa May off her pre-determined path.

Which is to say, in respect of our divorce bill, that May will declare tomorrow in princely Florence that we will meet "our obligations", though without putting a number on what she thinks they would be. Her numerical coyness is partly because she thinks it close to inconceivable that the EU will be in a position to agree a financial settlement till December, in that there almost certainly won't be a settled German government by the earlier staging post of October.

It will be clear that Johnson has been out-manoeuvred, in that she will signal that the UK will in essence maintain its net budget contributions (of circa £10bn per annum) for at least two years after Brexit day, 30 March 2019 - to maintain current market access arrangements and reassure businesses they won't suddenly be hit by new tariffs and bothersome customs checks.

She will reiterate how she wants to avoid the feared and loathed cliff edge for companies and citizens of tumbling out of the EU bereft of certainty about their tariffs, rights and obligations.

Boris Johnson and Phillip Hammond leave 10 Downing Street. Credit: PA

That said, it will also be evident that she has sidelined her chancellor, Philip Hammond, because her aspiration for after those two or perhaps three years of transition is for our future trading relationship to be what is known - in the ghastly jargon - as CETA plus, and not the Chancellor's beloved EEA minus.

What this means is we want a trade deal modelled on Canada's new one (CETA) with the EU, that has just become operative in interim mode, and not the more intimate integration with the EU of Norway or Switzerland.

The reason we are doing a Canada is there has been no resiling from the position taken by the PM in her landmark Lancaster House speech that Brexit means taking back control of immigration rules, lawmaking in general and the money we were hitherto obliged to pay into the EU budget - and such a reassertion of our sovereignty is incompatible with Norwegian or Swiss style access to the single market.

There is a wrinkle here though that May probably won't mention - but Davis did in a US speech a fortnight ago - which is that the UK will try to reassure EU members, and especially France, that we are not set to become a low-cost, low regulation economy, or Singapore West. Instead we will lobby for tougher global rules, and will champion a more hands-on role for regulatory bodies like the International Maritime Organisation, the International Labour Organisation (whose rules already underpin CETA) and the UN.

Anyway all of that is broadly May's position, to be expressed tomorrow.

Please don't assume the EU will give us as much as we want and need. There is a meaningful risk we will crash out of the EU without any meaningful deal at all.

And proof is that I am told by government members that a good deal of contingency planning is taking place in total secret for the thunderclap moment of exiting with no entente.

PS - Proof of the shaky cabinet unity on all this is that May will be accompanied to Florence tomorrow by Johnson, Davis and Hammond, representing all the colours of Tory Brexit thinking.