Ministers threaten to QUIT in protest at concessions to the EU
Theresa May vowed she will never sign up to a Brexit deal that ‘permanently’ traps the UK in the EU customs union. The PM made the promise as ministers threaten to quit over the latest concessions to Brussels. Mrs May is under fire from all sides as she races against time to thrash out a divorce deal with the EU that does not tear her government to pieces. But her latest plan to break the deadlock has caused fury amid claims it could see the UK commit to staying in the customs union beyond 2020 with no hard departure date. In an effort to soothe tensions, Downing Street insisted today: ‘The Prime Minister would never agree to a deal which would trap the UK in a backstop permanently.’ Meanwhile, the DUP is warning it will oust Mrs May if she bows to demands from Brussels for Northern Ireland to stay within the single market.
The walls are closing on the premier with just days to go until a crunch EU summit that could decide the country’s future.
Mrs May gathered her Brexit ‘War Cabinet’ last night to try and swing them behind her ideas for unlocking the negotiations. Her new ‘backstop’ plan to avoid a hard Irish border would see the UK effectively remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit until a permanent solution to the Irish border problem can be found. A previous commitment that the UK will have cut ties by the end of 2021 ‘at the latest’ is set to be dropped after fierce resistance from Brussels. Sources insist that backstop would still be ‘temporary’ and is likely to last ‘months, not years’.
The meeting last night – are believed to be considering whether they can go along with the compromise Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey (pictured) is also believed to have serious doubts about Mrs May’s approach But Liam Fox, Sajid Javid, Gavin Williamson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab all voiced concern about the concession. Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, and Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt – who were not invited to the meeting last night – are believed to be considering whether they can go along with the compromise. No formal proposal was put to the ministers, but they were asked to agree the ‘direction of travel’ as negotiators seek agreement with the EU. One Cabinet source predicted the issue could lead to resignations in the coming days, saying: ‘This is going to be a big test for some ministers. Are they willing to accept assurances that this is temporary if those words have no legal force? If not, then they surely have to resign.’ It would see the whole of the UK stay in the customs union ‘temporarily’ until a wider trade deal is struck. Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the single market to avoid regulatory checks on the border with the Republic. The government’s previous plan said that it wanted the UK to stay in the customs union until 2021 ‘at the latest’. But it is not clear whether the UK would be subject to rules that stop countries striking their own trade deals outside the bloc. The backstop is designed to fall away when a wider trade pact is agreed – which Mrs May says should be based on her Chequers plan for a ‘combined customs territory’ with the EU.
International Trade Secretary Dr Fox, whose plans for trade deals outside the EU would be severely limited inside a customs union, has told friends the proposal would ‘make life very difficult for me’. However, Government Chief Whip Julian Smith last night urged Tory MPs and ministers to rally round, saying: ‘The Prime Minister and the Government are conducting a complex negotiation that is going well and we should be backing the Prime Minister.’ Proposals for a so-called ‘temporary customs arrangement’ were first announced in June as part of ‘backstop’ plans to resolve the Irish border problem. At the time, the then Brexit secretary David Davis threatened to resign unless a clear end date was inserted, forcing Mrs May to accept the plan would be ‘time limited’. But Brussels has been implacable in its opposition to an end date, saying the ‘backstop’ plan must be ‘all-weather’. Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said: ‘Income tax was supposed to be temporary. Gladstone said it would expire in 1860. ‘Likewise, the 1911 Parliament Act says it is temporary. Both are still here.’ Chancellor Philip Hammond today signalled that the EU and UK were getting closer to agreement – and held out the prospect of a ‘deal dividend’ for the economy if a settlement is reached. ‘What has happened over the last week, 10 days, is there has been a measurable change in pace,’ he told the BBC. ‘There is a real sense now of engagement from both sides, of shared enterprise in trying to solve a problem rather than posturing towards each other. A really important step change. ‘But that shouldn’t conceal the fact that we have some big differences left to resolve. Process is a lot more positive this week, substance still very challenging. ‘If we are able to get to a good deal for Britain as we leave the European Union I believe there will be a dividend, a deal dividend for us.’ As pressure mounted on Mrs May last night, a DUP MP called for her to be replaced with a new Tory leader. The party has become increasingly alarmed that Mrs May will accept Northern Ireland staying in the single market while mainland Britain leaves – something they say would split the UK.