Downing Street has said Theresa May continues to have full confidence in Boris Johnson, after the Foreign Secretary attacked proposals for a customs partnership after Brexit as “crazy”.
The intervention heaped pressure on the Prime Minister as she suffered a wave of fresh defeats in the House of Lords on her flagship exit legislation.
Peers inflicted defeats in four areas, taking the total to 14, during its passage in the upper chamber.
They backed retaining key aspects of the single market by continued participation in the European Economic Area (EEA) thanks in part to a significant Labour rebellion against Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit policy.
Four defeats at a single sitting is the worst day yet for the Government on the #EUWithdrawalBill Brings the running total to 14— Nick Lester (@nickolester) May 8, 2018
Peers also backed a move to allow Britain’s continued participation in EU agencies, removing the Brexit date of March 29 2019 from the legislation and strengthening scrutiny of secondary legislation made by ministers.
Mr Johnson, meanwhile, made a very public challenge to the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit when he used an interview with the Daily Mail to warn that the customs partnership option would create a “whole new web of bureaucracy”.
BREAKING: Govt defeat as Peers vote 311-233 (Maj. 78) for key cross-party amendt (95) to #EUWithdrawalBill on removing fixed exit day (29 March 2019) from the legislation - to give Govt greater flexibility in #Brexit negotiations.— LabourLordsUK (@LabourLordsUK) May 8, 2018
That's Lords defeat no.12 on the Bill
Mrs May is understood to favour the arrangement, under which the UK would collect customs tariffs on behalf of the EU, as a means of breaking the deadlock in Brexit talks on the future of the Irish border.
But she failed to win over senior colleagues at a meeting of her Brexit “war cabinet” last week, forcing her to ask officials to rethink the plan, along with a second “maximum facilitation” option using new technology to reduce friction at the border.
The plan would not comply with promises to take back control, and would hamper the UK’s ability to strike trade deals, said the Foreign Secretary.
Honoured to be the first foreign minister to visit @SecPompeo in Washington, and the first to sign his visitors' book! Evidence of the enduring strength of the UK-US relationship. pic.twitter.com/iDAf5XY7TW— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 7, 2018
“It’s totally untried and would make it very, very difficult to do free trade deals,” he told the Mail.
“If you have the new customs partnership, you have a crazy system whereby you end up collecting the tariffs on behalf of the EU at the UK frontier.”
Mrs May’s official spokesman said that the issue was not discussed at Tuesday’s regular meeting of Cabinet in 10 Downing Street, which Mr Johnson attended after returning from a visit to the US.
The spokesman declined to say whether the PM had spoken privately with the Foreign Secretary about his comments.
But asked whether Mrs May continued to have full confidence in Mr Johnson as Foreign Secretary, the PM’s spokesman said: “Yes.”
He added: “There are two customs models that were put forward by the Government last August and most recently outlined in the Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech which the entire Cabinet was signed up to.
“Following last week’s sub-committee meeting, it was agreed that there are unresolved issues in relation to both models and that further work is needed.
“The Prime Minister asked officials to take forward that work as a priority.”
A Department for Exiting the European Union spokesman said the Government was “disappointed” by the defeats and would consider the implications they had on the legislation.