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6 June 2018

The row over the customs backstop is the cabinet Brexiteers’ last chance to put up or shut up

If the backstop is approved it will define just how Britain leaves the EU – or, in effect, doesn’t. After that point, David Davis won’t be able to resign to save his vision of Brexit.

By Patrick Maguire

Just six days before the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons, the Conservatives have contrived to create another Brexit row as the June meeting of the European Council approaches: this time over the proposed backstop to the withdrawal agreement. 

The plan – designed to prevent a hard Irish border in the absence of a free trade or customs deal that prevents it – will see the whole UK remain in close regulatory alignment with the EU and matching its tariffs beyond 2020. 

The full text is set to be published tomorrow but has already sparked bitter recriminations within cabinet because it does not include a legally-enforceable end date for the backstop, instead saying it will “only be in place until the future customs arrangement can be introduced”. 

Leavers fear that without a specified, quantifiable time limit, there is a risk of the backstop leading to a permanent, Brexit-in-name-only transition. Its publication will mark a big reckoning for those inside government: Westminster has been buzzing for much of today with talk of David Davis, forever on the brink of resigning over some percieved affront or other, finally making good on his promise to quit (current briefings suggest he will not). 

As May has abandoned key elements of their vision of Brexit, Eurosceptics inside government have consoled themselves with the promise of jam tomorrow. The calculation has been that being in the customs union a little while longer will be worth it provided it’s followed by the ability to diverge from EU regulations and implement a new trade regime.

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This, however, is impossible without time-limiting the backstop. But doing so is a fundamentally incompatible with the point of the mechanism as the EU27 understands it. The entire point of a backstop, one EU diplomat told me recently, is to provide permanent insulation for the Irish border against the ideological whims of a future British government: without it, the prospect of a hard border remains. 

From this perspective, the notion that it could ever be time-limited is a nonsense, as is the jam tomorrow mentality of those Brexiteers who think they might, eventually, be able to win the war despite losing the battle. We’re rapidly approaching the moment where those inside government will need to put up or shut up. 

If the backstop is approved without a time limit it will define just how Britain leaves the EU – or, in effect, doesn’t. After that point, the likes of Davis and Boris Johnson will find scant opportunity to resign to save their vision of Brexit.