Tory MPs Warn of Brexit Government 'Collapse' Unless May Drops Customs Plan With EU

Published May 3rd, 2018 - 01:00 GMT
British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is currently facing hard time as Tory MPs vow their would be a 'collapse' of government if she brakes her promises. (AFP/File Photo)
British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is currently facing hard time as Tory MPs vow their would be a 'collapse' of government if she brakes her promises. (AFP/File Photo)

Theresa May is facing her biggest Brexit battle yet today as Tory MPs vow to 'collapse' the government unless she drops plans for a customs partnership with the EU.

The Prime Minister will gather her Brexit 'war cabinet' for a crunch meeting later after sixty Conservative backbenchers sent a 30-page report to Downing Street savaging the plan.

The damning report - compiled by the powerful European Research Group headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg - claimed the idea would 'festoon the entire economy with burdensome controls, while crippling the ability of the UK' to negotiate trade deals.

Cabinet Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis and Liam Fox are also lining up against the compromise blueprint, which would see Britain collect border duties on behalf of the EU.

Mr Rees-Mogg insisted this morning that he was not 'threatening' Mrs May. But he warned that the proposal would 'not deliver on the Conservative Party manifesto or the Prime Minister's other commitments'.

'It would leave us de facto in the customs union and the single market,' he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. 

In a sign of the growing resistance, housing minister Dominic Raab broke cover to suggest opponents of the customs partnership were 'winning the argument'.

He said he was 'minded towards' the other option proposed by the UK, of deploying technology and trusted trader schemes to minimise border checks. 

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said the PM was 'listening' to her MPs.

Supporters of the customs partnership concept believe it is the only way of protecting the economy and avoiding a hard Irish border. 

But Downing Street has been warned that trying to force the plan through would bring about the 'collapse' of the Government.

If 60 MPs turned against Mrs May it would destroy her wafer thin Commons majority of 13 - and could bring her premiership to an end.

One European Research Group source told The Telegraph: 'We have swallowed everything so far – but this is it. 

'If they don't have confidence in Brexit we don't have confidence in them. The Prime Minister will not have a majority if she does not kill off the NCP [New Customs Partnership].'

Brexiteers fear Mrs May will side with Mr Hammond, Business Secretary Greg Clark and her chief Brexit adviser Olly Robbins, who are championing the idea. 

Mr Lidington played down the prospect of any final decision on the Brexit 'war cabinet'.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today the discussions would 'start this afternoon and will probably continue in other meetings'.

The two proposals had been the subject of 'intensive analytical work by civil servants' who had been 'looking at the practicalities, the operational challenges that would have to be surmounted, all these problems - the legal risks and so on'.

'This will be the first time today for Cabinet colleagues to sit down and have a constructive discussion about the way forward,' he said.

Mr Lidington added: '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.'

He indicated that the full Cabinet may be invited to consider the position by Mrs May after the Brexit sub-committee has discussed the options.

She was also 'talking all the time and listening all the time to voices of Conservative MPs, Conservative Party supporters, from all strands of the debate about Europe'. He added that before June's summit of EU leaders 'we need to be making every effort to ensure there is significant progress in the negotiations'.

The leading Brexiteers fear it would effectively keep the UK inside the EU's customs union and wreck hopes of an independent trade policy. 

'The four are unambiguous in thinking this is a terrible idea,' the source said.

Mr Gove has described the plan as 'bonkers' and Dr Fox yesterday hinted he could even resign if it went ahead.

Mr Davis, who has dismissed the proposal as 'blue sky thinking', is also reported to have told friends he could quit. Aides played down the prospect of a walk-out however.

The four hope to 'peel off' Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and new Home Secretary Sajid Javid, both former Remainers.

Jacob Rees-Mogg urged the Prime Minister to abandon the partnership plan and challenge Remainers in Parliament who want to keep Britain inside the customs union. 

The Eurosceptic MP said the partnership proposal, which has the backing of Chancellor Philip Hammond, would 'result in the worst of all worlds and make us a vassal state'.

The Prime Minister is expected to warn ministers the proposal is the only one that can resolve the Northern Ireland border problem and get through Parliament.

One Whitehall source said the PM was more concerned about the prospect of a defeat in Parliament by diehard Remainers led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve than by the risk of a mutiny by Tory Eurosceptics. 

'The bottom line is, she is more afraid of Grieve than she is of Iain Duncan Smith,' the source said.

Another source said Mrs May could try to fudge the issue at today's two-hour meeting to prevent destabilising the Government ahead of tomorrow's local elections. 

But if a deal is signed off it could be approved by the full Cabinet as early as next week.

Cabinet sources played down the prospect of immediate resignations, suggesting Eurosceptic ministers would rely on Brussels killing off the proposal later in the year.

Opinion in Mrs May's 11-strong Brexit war cabinet is finely balanced. Friends of Mr Javid acknowledge he has held 'bracingly Eurosceptic' views for years, but point out that he is a pragmatist who ended up backing Remain in 2016.

Mr Williamson is opposed to the UK remaining in any customs union. But allies suggested he could be swayed by his loyalty to the PM. Today's meeting has been called to discuss the Government's two options for future customs dealings with the EU.

The 'new customs partnership' would require officials to track the final destination of all goods entering the UK and hand over relevant tariffs to Brussels on goods ending up in the EU. It would also require alignment with EU regulations in some sectors.

The second option – known as 'maximum facilitation' – is a looser arrangement, which would use technology to streamline customs controls, particularly at the Irish border.

The EU has raised doubts about whether controls could ever be seamless enough to prevent the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

Eurosceptic MPs have warned that Mrs May could face a leadership challenge unless she opts for a clean break with Brussels. One former minister said: 'This would be the final straw.'  

Unconfirmed reports earlier this month suggested that EU officials had dismissed both UK proposals. Mr Davis yesterday told the House of Lords EU committee: 'The Commission did push back on both.'

Downing Street fears the Government's hands could be tied if Remainers in Parliament rally round an amendment to the Trade Bill tabled by former Tory Minister Anna Soubry to keep Britain in a customs union.

Insiders believe the partnership idea could buy off enough rebels to avoid defeat.

Downing Street last night insisted the scheme could be delivered on time.

A No 10 spokesman said: 'We are leaving the customs union and won't be joining a customs union. We have put forward two proposals for addressing the customs issue in general and they will be discussed by the Government further.'                                                  

Yesterday, Dr Fox ramped up the pressure on May over Brexit - making clear he is ready to quit if she drops her red line on leaving the customs union.

The Trade Secretary said any form of customs union with the EU would be 'unacceptable' and worse than the UK's current membership terms with the bloc.  

The PM has repeatedly pledged that there will be no customs union after Brexit, but is struggling to find a way of reconciling the demands of Brexiteers and Remainers.

Tory rebels are threatening to side with Labour and other parties in a Commons vote on staying in the customs union expected next month.

They say keeping the ties are the only way to protect the economy and prevent a hard Irish border. 

The Lords has already passed an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill designed to maintain a customs union - although ministers believe it is so loosely worded as to have little real impact.

But Eurosceptic Tories say they could move against Mrs May unless she holds the line on the crucial issue and ensures the UK can strike trade deals around the rest of the world.  

The Cabinet met yesterday but is not thought to have discussed Brexit.

A key moment could come tomorrow when a powerful sub-committee meets to thrash out the UK's position - although it could delay a final decision.

Brexiteers have been trying to kill off a plan for a 'customs partnership' with the EU, which would see the UK collect taxes on behalf of the bloc.

Dr Fox said yesterday that staying in any form of customs union was not an option.

'I don't think we can stay in the customs union for a number of reasons, the main reason being that we would be in a worse position than we are today,' he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

'If we were in a customs union with the European Union we would have to accept what the EU negotiated in terms of market access to the UK without the UK having a voice. 

'That's worse than the position in which we found ourselves today in the European Union.

'I don't think there is a customs union that could ever be acceptable.

'If we are in a customs union of any sort we will have less ability to shape Britain's future than we have today. That is not what the public voted for.'

Dr Fox refused to say explicitly that he would quit if Mrs May changed course, but left little doubt about his intentions.

'Getting no answer you can draw your own inferences,' he said.

Mrs May's task might have been made more difficult by Amber Rudd's resignation amid the Windrush fiasco. 

The Cabinet has been carefully designed to represent both Europhile and Eurosceptic factions within the Tory party - with Mrs May theoretically having a casting vote.

But while Ms Rudd was a full-hearted Remainer, it is not clear where her replacement Sajid Javid will fall in the debate.

He was seen as a reluctant backer of EU membership during the referendum two years ago.   

This article has been adapted from its original source.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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