How Sajid Javid helped Brexiteers scupper Theresa May’s EU customs plan

The new Home Secretary opposed the PM’s proposals, claiming they would wed Britain to EU institutions indefinitely.

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That’s some “thank you”, Sajid. The Home Secretary has repaid the Prime Minister for his promotion by striking the decisive blow against her proposed customs partnership with the European Union at yesterday’s meeting of the Brexit war cabinet.

Though May and her allies within the inner cabinet had hoped yesterday would see ministers back her favoured but untested compromise option, which would see the UK collect EU tariffs at the border on behalf of Brussels and reimburse businesses if they stayed within the UK and British tariff was lower, it was not to be.

Javid – who, it's fair to say, is only nominally a Remainer – joined the cabinet's Three Brexiteers, as well as Michael Gove and Gavin Williamson, in opposing the plan on the grounds that it would wed Britain to EU institutions indefinitely. Newly deprived of Amber Rudd, May and her remain-backing allies could only muster five, despite the much-remarked upon presence of the chief whip, Julian Smith.

Smith has not previously attended such meetings and speculation abounds this morning that he was invited to either disguise that May was outnumbered or, if more paranoid briefings are to be believed, intimidate waverers into supporting the Prime Minister. Politico and the Times have the best blow-by-blow accounts.

So what happens now? May has conceded that she will have to delay a planned discussion at next week's full cabinet meeting and has dispatched Olly Robbins to cook up a new fudge. The dander of the Brexiters, meanwhile, is sky-high. Leavers in and around government have declared the customs partnership dead. Some are tentatively declaring victory for their favoured “max-fac” solution, which would see trusted trader schemes facilitate minimal customs checks on the Irish border (which, by the government's own definition, would amount to the hard border it is committed to avoiding).

Such triumphalism – and plenty of it is betrayed in briefings to the papers this morning – is premature. Regardless of both the outcome of yesterday's drama and the newfound majority for the Leavers in the Brexit war cabinet, the bigger picture hasn't changed.

The EU27 have made it clear they will not accept either of the customs models discussed yesterday, let alone a contrived compromise between them. There is, as even Tory Leavers now freely admit privately, a majority for a customs union in the commons. And, most pertinently, May is running out of time ahead of next month's EU council summit and deadline for a solution on the Irish border.

No amount of deft politicking from Javid and the Eurosceptics changes that. Neither will a clumsy solution brokered to win them round. Leavers might have claimed victory in this battle, but with every Westminster squabble won, they store up yet more pain for May – and their Brexit mission – in the medium term.

Patrick Maguire was political correspondent at the New Statesman.

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