Perhaps Theresa May is the heir to Blair after all: she’s found a “Third Way” on customs, between the preferred Brexiteer model of “maximum facilitation” and her original “customs partnership”.
But unfortunately for the Prime Minister, her Third Way is less “The Third way circa 1997” and more “the Third Way circa 2007”. She’s managed to unite large chunks of the Tory party, who are deeply suspicious of this supposed Third Way that the PM won’t share details of.
And they are right to worry: the truth is that there is no third way on customs. Either you have regulatory and customs alignment between the United Kingdom and the European Union, or you have a hard border either on the island of Ireland or the Irish Sea, both of which the government has ruled out time and time again. (Theresa May did so again in the House yesterday as well as wheeling out yet another variation of “Brexit means Brexit”.)
Whether she knew what she was doing or not, the crucial moment in May’s Brexit negotiations was in December 2017, when she signed up to an accord that made her promises on the Irish border legally binding. Doing so sharply limited the final shape of Brexit (assuming, for a moment, that no one invents a way to resolve the Irish border using blockchain or Zeppelins): either a soft Brexit or crashing out without a deal.
And no amount of chuntering about “max fac”, Third Ways, or whatever bit of jargon comes out of Downing Street next will change that.