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11 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

On the Customs partnership, Brexiteers are delaying the reckoning with reality

The PM has split the cabinet in two to thrash out two plans already rejected by the EU.

By Patrick Maguire

Theresa May has finally backed down over the customs partnership. Or has she? In yet another bid to break the deadlock over Britain’s post-Brexit customs relationship with the EU, the Prime Minister has told ministers to go away and think about what they’ve done.

In an unconventional move – not that convention dictates that working out a key negotiating priority before the end of a negotiation is a good idea anyway – May has split her warring inner cabinet into two working groups of three ministers each (supposedly divided by areas of departmental responsibility).

The idea is that differences will be thrashed out and an agreed position brokered, though quite how dividing one ideologically riven sub-committee into two will help is unclear.

Curiously, two advocates of each plan have been assigned to work on the one they oppose. Liam Fox, Michael Gove and David Lidington will work on May’s favoured but increasingly doomed customs partnership, while Greg Clark, David Davis and Karen Bradley will work on max fac, or maximum facilitation, the Brexiteers’ favourite. A bit like university debaters made to argue in favour of microchipping pensioners. Dead Poets Society meets the civil service fast stream assessment day.

Neither the most ideological players in the inner cabinet (Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson) nor the ones most motivated by political expediency (Sajid Javid and Gavin Williamson) are involved in the exercise, which inevitably raises the question of whether they will accede to any model agreed by the mechanism anyway.

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Opinion is divided over what this all means. Some in cabinet are declaring victory for max fac, which would involve the use of techonology to allow trusted traders to cross borders, and suggesting that it’s a convoluted way of allowing the customs partnership to be politely killed off (more on that from ITV’s Carl Dinnen here). 

The Times, meanwhile, flags suspicion among Brexiteers that the ministers assigned to work on max fac betray May’s intention to discredit it: Clark has been the most outspoken advocate of the customs partnership and Bradley will be seen as the ultimate arbiter of whether any solution adequately solves the Irish border issue.

In either case, May would be in deep trouble. Kill the customs partnership and pursue max fac and the border issue isn’t solved. And should it result in the backstop option of a differential situation for Northern Ireland kicking in, May can wave goodbye to the DUP, who  are making their impatience with her increasingly clear and have said they would vote against the government in such a scenario. Kill max fac, and she risks the ire of Brexiteers inside and outside of cabinet.

Ultimately, though, the internal dynamics of this row don’t really matter. As barely needs repeating, EU have already dismissed both customs options and a lukewarm, equally unworkable compromise is hardly going to prove the solution they’ve been holding out for. It’s no wonder that some Brexiteers are now calling for an extension to the customs transition before implementing max fac in order to delay the reckoning with reality.

The one reckoning May can’t delay, however, is next month’s with the EU – and agreement at home before then is looking increasingly unattainable.

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