Theresa May faces deadlock over Brexit customs rules, after senior politicians attack both proposed options

Michael Gove – picked by the prime minister to examine her 'customs partnership' model – points to 'significant question marks'

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 13 May 2018 10:52
Comments
Michael Gove says there are 'significant question marks' over timescale and deliverability of customs arrangement

Theresa May faces deadlock over the key controversy of customs rules after Brexit, after senior politicians rubbished both of the options being studied by her warring cabinet.

Michael Gove – picked by the prime minister to examine her preferred “customs partnership” model – warned there were “significant question marks over the deliverability of it”.

Meanwhile, the Irish deputy prime minister insisted Dublin would block a Brexit withdrawal agreement if she pursued an alternative technology-based solution, saying: “It won’t work.”

The warnings left Ms May with few apparent options to resolve the impasse, with a deadline set by the EU just six weeks away.

Two working groups of key ministers have been set up to study both the customs partnership – under which the UK would collect tariffs on behalf the EU – and the tech-based “max-fac” proposal.

Mr Gove, the environment secretary, speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, declined to back Boris Johnson’s description of the partnership model as “crazy”.

But he said: “Boris pointed out that because it’s novel, because no model like this exists, there have to be significant question marks over the deliverability of it on time.”

Crucially, Mr Gove also suggested the proposal would break Ms May’s key promise – stated again today – to ‘take back control” of borders and laws.

“What the customs partnership requires the British government to do is in effect to act as the tax collector and very possibly the effective deliverer of regulation for the European Union,” he claimed.

A proposal to seek EU agreement to keep the UK in the single market and customs union past the end of 2020, while a solution is found, was also stamped on by Mr Gove.

“I don’t believe in an extension,” he said – arguing it was “critical to meet that deadline” of ending the post-Brexit transition period after 21 months.

However, Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, insisted Ms May – to strike a withdrawal deal – had to abide by her “clear commitment” to rule out border checks, which was impossible under the “maximum facilitation” plan.

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney says a hard border with Northern Ireland won't work

“We simply think it won’t work,” Mr Coveney said, speaking on the same programme.

“If you don’t believe me on it, listen to the people who are living locally there, listen to the chief constable of the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland].

“He is saying that any infrastructure on the border, any physical infrastructure, is going to represent a risk to his officers.”

Mr Coveney insisted the “only solution is to maintain alignment in terms of rules and regulations”, adding: “Show me a border somewhere in the world that is seamless. It doesn’t exist.”

He said maintaining a seamless frontier was about more than just trade, saying: “If you talk to people about their memories of the past, in the context of the border, you will often end up talking to someone with tears in their eyes.”

The customs partnership plan will be examined by Mr Gove and fellow Brexiteer opponent Liam Fox, in a group also including David Lidington, a May loyalist.

Meanwhile, two sceptics, Greg Clark and Karen Bradley, will examine the tech-based “max-fac” proposal – requiring border checks – with supporter David Davis.

The set-up suggests neither group will reach a decision in favour, unless one member can be “turned”.

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said: “We are in a farcical situation. Nearly two years after the referendum the cabinet is fighting over two customs options neither of which frankly is workable, neither of which is acceptable to the EU.”

He rejected accusations that Labour’s stance was similarly muddled, arguing it backed a “comprehensive customs union” and a “strong single market relationship that hard wires the benefits”.

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