Theresa May has been warned by Tory Eurosceptics that a proposed “customs partnership” with the EU after Brexit is unacceptable.
The Prime Minister’s “Brexit war cabinet” is meeting on Wednesday to try to thrash out a way forward on the divisive issue of customs arrangements after EU withdrawal.
Unconfirmed reports on Tuesday night said that Chancellor Philip Hammond has thrown his weight behind a customs partnership proposal thought to be favoured by the Prime Minister but branded “cretinous” by critics.
The European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Tory MPs has sent Mrs May a report detailing its opposition to the plan, developed by her representative in Brexit talks, Olly Robbins.
The ERG’s leader Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted he was not issuing an “ultimatum” to the Prime Minister but stressed his opposition to the option.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the proposal was “deeply unsatisfactory” and would “not get us out of the European Union, which is what people voted for”.
With customs arrangements emerging as the key stumbling block to a deal on EU withdrawal, the issue has the potential to split the Cabinet, where Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, who are seeking the freedom to strike new trade deals, are pitted against others who fear barriers to commerce in Europe.
Downing Street has been privately warned that a customs partnership could collapse the Government, as committed Brexiteers on the Tory backbenches regard it as unacceptable as it would deliver “Brexit in name only”.
Although the European Commission has said it wants a solution for the Irish border by its upcoming summit in June, there is no requirement on Mrs May to come to a final decision at Wednesday’s meeting of the Brexit strategy and negotiations sub-committee.
It was widely expected that she may seek to stave off potential resignations by keeping all options open.
Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, one of those attending the meeting, indicated a final decision may not be reached – with the full Cabinet expected to consider the issue.
He told Today the discussions would “start this afternoon and will probably continue in other meetings”, adding: “I expect we will come to a decision on this, as well as on other important elements of our negotiating position, over the next few weeks.”
Certainly there would be a lot of very disappointed Brexiteers if we were to end up in a customs partnershipFormer Brexit minister David Jones
Under the customs partnership plan, Britain would collect tariffs on the EU’s behalf at ports and airports, passing on a share of the cash to Brussels.
If the UK decided to set different tariffs from its European neighbours, traders would claim refunds from HM Revenue and Customs for goods which stay in Britain.
Mr Robbins is understood to regard the partnership as a means of avoiding a hard border in Ireland while keeping the UK out of the European customs union.
But Brexit Secretary David Davis has confirmed that Brussels is “pushing back” at the scheme, as well as a second UK proposal for a “streamlined customs arrangement” using new technology to avoid the need for checks at the border.
Reports last month suggested that EU officials told Mr Robbins at a Brussels meeting that both schemes were “unworkable”.
Now Mr Davis has told a House of Lords committee: “The commission did push back on both.”
Brussels is concerned both by the prospect of “porosity” on the EU’s external border and by the risk of creating a precedent which might be copied elsewhere, he said.
Tory Brexiteers fear the scheme could indefinitely trap the UK within the EU’s customs arrangements, as well as being expensive and complicated to operate.
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith told The Daily Telegraph that the ERG report had killed the argument for the customs partnership “stone dead”.
Former Brexit minister David Jones told BBC Two’s Newsnight: “Certainly there would be a lot of very disappointed Brexiteers if we were to end up in a customs partnership.
“The Prime Minister’s calculations have got to include exactly what reaction there would be from the parliamentary party and the wider Conservative Party if we were to enter into that sort of relationship.”
What we are not going to do is make trade harder for the many businesses in this countryNicky Morgan, Tory ex-minister
But Conservative former minister Nicky Morgan said there were also “hard conversations to be had” to get pro-European Tory MPs on board with any changes to customs arrangement.
“What we are not going to do is make trade harder for the many businesses in this country, nor make peace in Northern Ireland something that we put at risk,” Ms Morgan said.
Failure to come up with a solution could leave the UK forced to fall back on the European Commission’s “backstop” option, which would effectively draw a customs border down the Irish Sea.
Mrs May has insisted that no British prime minister could accept such a scenario.
And it would infuriate the Democratic Unionist Party, whose MPs prop up the minority Conservative Government in the House of Commons.
Pressed at Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons on which solution she preferred for Brexit, Mrs May said only that there were “a number of ways” of delivering on the Government’s commitments to leave the customs union while allowing an independent trade policy, avoiding a hard border in Ireland and making trade “as frictionless as possible” with the EU.
The PM was responding to Labour’s Karen Buck, who said: “Ministers will today discuss the two customs arrangement proposals put forward last August.
“The first is untried and untested, the second relies on unproven technology.
“In any event, neither will be ready in the time that they are needed and both have been written off in Europe.
“Why, with just six months to go before a draft Brexit deal is signed off, are the Government still considering options that we all know are not feasible?”