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Rees-Mogg ERG paper has 'no new ideas' for Irish border

Former Brexit Minister David Davis (centre) with former UUP leader David Trimble during a meeting of the pro-Brexit European Research Group
Former Brexit Minister David Davis (centre) with former UUP leader David Trimble during a meeting of the pro-Brexit European Research Group

By Rob Merrick and Shona Murray

Claims by pro-Brexit Tories to have found a solution to the Irish border controversy were undermined when they admitted there was "nothing new" in their proposals.

The European Research Group (ERG) piled pressure on Theresa May to ditch her Chequers plan, insisting new technology and inspections far from the frontier could meet EU demands to avoid a return to border posts.

But David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, acknowledged the ideas were a return to the "max fac" plan dumped by the Prime Minister, after a warning it would cost businesses up to £20bn a year.

He also argued it was part of a "trend" towards "streamlined" crossings across the world, including between the USA and Canada - even though that border has guards carrying guns.

"There's nothing new in here, it's actually quite boring," admitted Owen Paterson, a former Northern Ireland secretary.

The 19-page - hastily-stapled together - paper proposed initial regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU, with a "common biosecurity zone" to allow the smooth movement of agricultural goods.

Among its supporters at the launch was former First Minister Lord Trimble, now a Tory peer.

Larger companies would use "trusted trader" schemes to clear their goods for export and import, with standards checks "at the point of sale", rather than the border.

"There is nothing which would reduce our commitment to the Belfast Agreement, or which might jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland," the group claimed.

The document also castigates the European Commission for "taking advice" on 'Irish' issues from Dublin alone, in spite of the fact that the UK government speaks for Northern Ireland.

"It is now accepted that the European Commission has made a major error in taking advice on matters relating to the island of Ireland almost solely from Dublin," the document states.

But the Irish government rubbished the paper, with some sources dismissing it as "rehashed", "reheated", "factually inaccurate nonsense".

"As far as the Irish government is concerned we understand the paper is just a reheat of various views and proposals that have already been judged inadequate or unworkable," said a spokesperson for the Taoiseach.

"The position of the Irish government is that the paper has no standing whatsoever in terms of the UK government's position."

The central criticism from Dublin and Brussels is that it contains no workable ideas on how best to maintain the status quo on the island of Ireland.

The document relies on the use of future technology to avoid the need for the related customs and regulatory checks that will ensue if a hard-Brexit outside the Single Market and Customs Union materialises.

"It's frankly crazy stuff, from a bunch of crazies that's been rehashed and is basically factually inaccurate nonsense," said an Irish source. But the event was overshadowed by the revelation that up to 50 Tory MPs, at a weekly meeting of the ERG, openly discussed how to topple the Prime Minister.

However, leading figures in the group were at pains to stress they were not questioning the Prime Minister's position.

ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted he was seeking a change of government policy, not a change in leadership.

"I have long said that the policy needs to be changed but I am supporting the person," he said.

His comments were echoed by former Brexit secretary David Davis, who quit the government over the Chequers plan which would see Britain maintain a "common rule book" with the EU for trade in goods and agriculture.

"I disagree with her on one issue - this issue. She should stay in place because we need stability and we need decent government as the backdrop to what we are doing in the coming six months," he said.

Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who also resigned over Chequers and warned earlier this week that up to 80 Tory MPs could vote against it, said they were trying to "stay off" the leadership issue.

"I think the grave threat to the security and prosperity in the UK is a Marxist Labour Party in government," he said.

"So, we all need to just be cautious in what we do and what we say, and support Theresa May (and) invite her to change the policy.

"We really aren't getting into the territory now of if she doesn't, because we don't want to be there."

The apparent unwillingness of the Brexiteers to provoke a leadership challenge is likely to embolden Mrs May in her determination to press on with the Chequers plan.

At the ERG meeting yesterday, a number of MPs were understood to have said they had already handed letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, while others suggested they could follow suit.

Under party rules, if 48 MPs submit letters, a vote of no confidence would be triggered.

However, Tory backbencher Michael Fabricant - who was at the meeting - played down the prospect of a challenge.

"Reports of Theresa May's demise are greatly exaggerated. Of the 40-50 there, only five to six people discussed letters to the chairman of the 1922 and they wrote ages ago," he wrote on Twitter.

"The rest of us sat in uncomfortable silence. Though most are unhappy with Chequers."

Environment Secretary Michael Gove - one of the leaders of the official Leave campaign who ran unsuccessfully against Mrs May - also rallied behind the Prime Minister.

"This is loose talk. The critical thing is to ensure that we deliver on that Brexit mandate," he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"Any diversion or any distraction from that mission means that our ability to ensure that the referendum mandate that we were given is delivered, is undermined."

Belfast Telegraph


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