Friday

18th Jan 2019

Vultures circle over British PM in EU talks

  • May - who originally campaigned for UK to remain in the EU - facing possible revolt by hardline Brexiteers (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Brexit hardliners in British prime minister Theresa May's party have rebelled against plans for an EU 'customs partnership'.

The threat to her authority raised the risk of the UK exiting the EU without an agreement, amid British parliamentary efforts to prevent that scenario.

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  • Davis and others threatened to resign over customs partnership (Photo: European Commission)

The hardline European Research Group (ERG), a clique of 60 Conservative Party MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, issued May its ultimatum in a report last week, which came to light on Tuesday (1 May).

The 30-page file, entitled "Memorandum - the New Customs Partnership", said plans for a customs deal, in which the UK imposed EU customs rules on Britain's borders and collected tariffs on behalf of the European Union, would make it "impossible" for the UK to have an independent trade policy.

"I will not support the customs partnership and doubt many ERG members would either," Rees-Mogg told The Sun, Britain's top-selling tabloid on Tuesday.

The partnership was "incompatible with the Conservative party manifesto" and "completely cretinous", he added in other remarks.

ERG members have threatened to boycott votes in parliament if May goes ahead, questioning her ability to govern, amid an already slender grip on power.

May's party lost its majority in an election in 2017 and relies on the support of a small group of equally hardline Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland.

Hard Brexit advocates in May's cabinet - including David Davis, her Brexit negotiator, and Liam Fox, her trade secretary - have also threatened to resign if she goes ahead with the EU customs partnership, posing further questions for her government.

"If we're in a customs union of any sort we'll have less ability to shape Britain's future than we have today. That's not what the public voted for," Fox told the BBC.

If hard-Brexit foreign minister Boris Johnson and environment minister Michael Gove joined the rebellion, May's days in office could be numbered.

The party's internecine warfare will come to a head on Wednesday, when May's 11-member Brexit sub-committee meets in Downing Street to discuss EU exit talks.

"We've been absolutely clear that we're leaving the customs union and won't be joining a customs union," the prime minister's spokesman said ahead of the meeting.

Red lines

Some form of customs deal is central to the final Brexit agreement, not least because it must prevent the creation of a hard border in Ireland - a red line for Irish and EU negotiators.

The ERG has called for a "streamlined customs arrangement" in which the UK reintroduced border checkpoints, but used high-tech gadgets to minimise disruption for people going back and forth.

The EU, which does not believe the 'streamlined' model would work, has insisted on a 'backstop' plan in which Northern Ireland remained a full member of the customs union if other arrangements failed.

The Tory warfare on the EU customs deal comes ahead of a looming deadline in October to finalise the Brexit withdrawal agreement before the UK leaves the bloc in March 2019.

But if Theresa May makes it to October with no agreement in place, that would pose even broader questions for the Brexit process following a vote in the British parliament on Tuesday.

Peers in the House of Lords backed an amendment to the European Union Withdrawal Bill, which governs Brexit, by 335 votes to 244 to give MPs the right to vote on the final scenario.

Brexit veto

"What this amendment would do is weaken the UK's hand in our negotiations with the EU by giving parliament unprecedented powers to instruct the government to do anything with regard to the negotiations - including trying to keep the UK in the EU indefinitely," May's Brexit minister, Lord Callanan, said.

"We're disappointed," he said.

The opposition Labour Party's shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, welcomed the creation of the Brexit veto, setting the scene for a parliamentary showdown.

There was "no majority in parliament for a no-deal Brexit", Starmer said.

"Under no circumstances can the prime minister … crash the UK out of the EU without a deal", he added.

Lord Newby, from the opposition and pro-EU Liberal party, said Tuesday's vote had put "parliament in the driving seat".

"Brexit is the most important decision facing the country for a generation and it's vital that parliament - not the government - decides whether or not any Brexit deal is acceptable," Newby said.

May promotes Brexit on 'first-anniversary' UK tour

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