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Customs partnership Cabinet ministers’ group has only met once, Fox admits

The working group was set up a month ago to examine the proposal for the Irish border issue, but Dr Fox said they had been waiting for information.

Cabinet ministers analysing one of the potential solutions to the post-Brexit Irish border customs problem have met just once in the month since they were given the task, Liam Fox has admitted.

The working group analysing the “customs partnership” proposal had been waiting for a report to be finished and will meet for a second time next week, the Brexiteer International Trade Secretary said.

Dr Fox’s group, which includes fellow Leave supporter Michael Gove – the Environment Secretary, were told to examine what is thought to be the Prime Minister’s preferred option and supported by ministers who backed Remain.

A second group is considering Leave-backers’ favoured “maximum facilitation” – or “max fac” – solution.

The Government has been told by EU leaders and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that they want to see progress over the impasse on the Irish border by the time the European Council meets at the end of June.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney upped the ante on Saturday, telling the Irish Times the UK must produce “written proposals” for the border within the next two weeks.

He also told the newspaper: “If there is no progress on the backstop, we are in for an uncertain summer.”

We have to wait for the appropriate information coming forward on it Liam Fox

Dr Fox defended the sole meeting so far, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today it was important to base decisions on “data, not knee-jerk reaction”.

He said: “We have been waiting for a report coming from experts and officials which we have just received.

“Parliament has of course not been sitting in the last week, we are back this week.

“We have to wait until we get the work done.

“The whole point of setting up these groups, the Prime minister said, was that we got this decision right.

“We have to wait for the appropriate information coming forward on it.”

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(PA Graphics)

The customs partnership idea would see Britain continue to collect tariffs on behalf of the EU. The group looking at the idea saw Dr Fox and Mr Gove joined by Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, a Remain backer.

The “Max fac” idea is based on the use of technology to minimise the need for customs checks post-Brexit and is being analysed by a group made up of Business Secretary Greg Clark and Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley – who were both pro-Remain – and the pro-Leave Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Dr Fox told Today that he still believed there were “problems” with the customs partnership idea, adding: “I have raised a number of objections to it in terms of our ability to conduct an independent trade policy and I’ll have to be persuaded of the answers to the questions that I have put in to that particular piece of work before I would be able to accept [it].

Brussels has already rejected both schemes, with chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier saying on Friday that neither was “operational or acceptable”.

A third option, dubbed “max fac 2” is understood to have been suggested by Mr Davis. It would see the tech options scrapped and replaced by a Liechtenstein model that would allow Northern Ireland to operate under EU and UK regulation.

It would also create a 10-mile wide “special economic zone” along the 310-mile border, within which local traders could operate under the Republic’s trade rules.

But a Downing Street spokesman on Friday said: “The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear that we cannot and will not accept a customs border down the Irish Sea, and that we will preserve the integrity of the UK’s common market.”

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