2 May 2018

Six Cabinet ministers present at Brexit Committee spoke against May’s preferred customs plan

Six Cabinet ministers at the Brexit Committee this afternoon pushed back on the idea of the Customs Partnership approach and Theresa May has agreed to ponder their complaints and anxieties and work on the proposal.

The idea was not killed off, one Cabinet minister said, but it was quite bruised at the end of the session.

The meeting began with a presentation by the UK chief negotiator, Olly Robbins. He emphasised the virtues of the Common Partnership scheme. Mrs May left Cabinet members in no doubt that the Partnership approach was her preferred option.

She explained that there was a pressure to show progress on Northern Ireland by the time of the next European Council meeting in June and showing commitment to the Partnership approach could do just that. She asked ministers to give her the “freedom” to do just that.

But six of the eleven ministers gathered at the Cabinet table spoke against the idea. Their criticisms closely matched the critique of the policy sent to No. 10 by the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Tory MPs.

That document, drafted by seasoned Euro-sceptic figures like the QC Martin Howe, suggested that the approach would mean the UK would end up entwined in the very EU institutions it was meant to escape. It said it would harm the chances of trade deals and might well be unworkable.

Privately, many Brexiteers emphasise that they worry it would not be ready this side of the next general election (if at all) and that would open up the possibility of the UK staying in the EU’s Customs Union in perpetuity. It’s not clear whether that particular argument was aired in the Cabinet room.

The meeting was reasonably good natured, one present said. Sajid Javid, the new arrival at this so-called “SN” Committee (Strategy and Negotiations), surprised no-one by coming out against the Partnership approach. It’s a reminder of the Prime Minister’s weakened position that she appointed someone who was more than likely to oppose, within 2 days, a policy to which she was deeply committed.

There are no votes taken at Cabinet or Cabinet Committee and none were needed. Mrs May ended the meeting acknowledging the concerns that had been raised about her preferred policy and saying some issues would be reviewed.

Suggestions that the Prime Minister might try to slip round the SN Committee and take the issue to full Cabinet when it meets next Tuesday have been killed off. Though one minister said you couldn’t be sure that wouldn’t happen one day in the future.

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