Brexit: Government publishes backstop plan after last-ditch compromise between Theresa May and David Davis

Agreement ends threat of Brexit secretary resigning – for now

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Thursday 07 June 2018 14:37 BST
David Davis wants post-Brexit relationship with Europe that 'recognises the history' and 'stands the test of time'

The government’s proposal for a Brexit “backstop” has been published and controversially includes a specific time limit after a last-ditch compromise between Theresa May and David Davis.

The contentious plan was amended at the last minute to say the proposed arrangement should not extend beyond December 2021 – a year after the end of the Brexit transition period.

The prime minister and the Brexit secretary agreed the wording of the document minutes before a meeting of the Brexit war cabinet.

Mr Davis had insisted there must be a specific time limit, with reports suggesting he was prepared to resign over the matter. The initial Downing Street draft of the document is understood not to have included the 2021 deadline.

The row relates to a backstop plan that would see the UK temporarily remain in parts of the EU customs union if no other way is found to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.

The document published on Thursday makes clear the government “expects” such an arrangement to be temporary, but includes no clear commitment to this end.

It states: “The UK is clear that the temporary customs arrangement, should it be needed, should be time limited, and that it will be only in place until the future customs arrangement can be introduced. The UK is clear that the future customs arrangement needs to deliver on the commitments made in relation to Northern Ireland.

“The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU.”

The agreement was reached after Ms May held separate meetings in her Commons office with Mr Davis and other Brexiteer ministers Boris Johnson and Liam Fox on Thursday morning. A Downing Street spokesperson said none of the ministers had threatened to resign during the meetings, which they described as “constructive”.

The Brexit secretary had earlier refused to rule out resigning over the matter. Asked on Wednesday if he could keep his job if the proposal was published without his approval, he said: "That’s a question, I think, for the prime minister, to be honest.”

A source close to Mr Davis said the backstop plan had been amended to add “much more detail” about the time limit.

They said: “Obviously, there’s been a back and forth on this paper, as there always is whenever the government publishes anything.

“The backstop paper has been amended and now expresses, in much more detail, the time-limited nature of our proposal – something the prime minister and David Davis have always been committed to.”

However, the time limit is not legally binding and is expressed an an expectation rather than a commitment, leading to suggestions it was a largely symbolic gesture made by Ms May to appease Brexiteers in her cabinet.

While the prime minister has staved off the threat of Mr Davis quitting, she will still have to convince EU leaders to agree to the backstop proposal. The EU has previously insisted such an arrangement must not be time limited, although the lack of legal weight in the UK's proposal could convince Brussels to accept the plan.

The European Parliament's Brexit lead, Guy Verhofstadt, swiftly poured cold water on the plan, writing on Twitter: "Difficult to see how UK proposal on customs aspects of IE/NI backstop will deliver a workable solution to avoid a hard border and respect integrity of the [single market/customs union]. A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop, unless the definitive arrangement is the same as the backstop."

The government paper proposes that, if no other arrangement for the Northern Ireland border is agreed, there should be no “tariffs, quotas, rules of origin (or) customs processes” applied to UK-EU trade for as long as the backstop is in place.

The UK would be free to make new trade deals during this time.

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