Don’t expect a Government decision on customs for the Brexit negotiation any time soon. This site understands that members of at least one of the two groups formed to help reach a decision have had preliminary discussions, but not actually met yet. The Prime Minister is aiming for a decision before the European Council meets at the end of June. On that timetable, she has over a month to find an agreed position. We now give the optimistic and pessimistic view from a Brexiteer perspective – or indeed from that of those simply wanting a practicable decision as soon as possible.
One Cabinet Minister draws attention to the composition of the two groups looking at the two models. In the first, which will examine the customs partnership, Liam Fox and Michael Gove are opposed to the idea, while David Lidington is reportedly in favour, and will in any event feel under a special obligation to support the Prime Minister. In the second, which will look at maximum facilitation, Karen Bradley and Greg Clark have different reasons for wanting the partnership model instead, while David Davis strongly supports the proposal.
The difference between the two, the Minister argues, is that the combination of Gove and Fox will finally put the partnership model out of its misery, while Davis is so committed to maximum facilitation that he will find a way through – particularly if Bradley, who is less opposed to the model than obliged to represent her department’s anxieties about the UK-Ireland land border, can be won round.
Certainly, a key to finding a route forward for Theresa May – who has an oped in today’s Sunday Times on Brexit – is to keep Davis and Fox onside. The Sunday Telegraph has some fun today probing the full Cabinet for support or opposition to the customs partnership. And there has been a lot of speculation about Downing Street pressure on Gavin Williamson.
All this misses a crucial point: namely, that however numbers divide in Cabinet, or in the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit negotiations and strategy, the Prime Minister cannot afford to lose the support of the two Ministers most affected by the eventual customs decision – Davis, who will have to represent it in the negotiation, and Fox, whose leitmotif is that Britain must be able to negotiate and sign trade deals, and who believes that the partnership model would make this very difficult indeed in practical terms.
That’s the optimistic view.
The pessimistic one is that we’re heading towards a policy whose basic features are maximum facilitation, plus a delay in leaving the Customs Union, in order to get “max fac” up to speed. Now this is far from being a bad idea in itself. Our columnist Henry Newman has championed it, and Nick Boles has been busy projecting it in on Twitter, pointing out that, under its terms, we would still be out of the Customs Union by 2022, before the proposed date of the next general election.
Some Brexiteer Cabinet Ministers, however, have their reservations about such an outcome. One worries that any teething problems with the new system, here or in EU countries (whose operations are necessarily outside our control) would make themselves felt, under this timetable, slap bang in the run-up to a June 2022 election – the worst possible timing.
Another is wary of conceding any delay, on the ground that if the Treasury, which holds the purse strings, and the civil service more widely – which must implement any new system – is given an inch it will take a yard – “or the best part of a metre”, as the Minister put it. According to this view, the institutional Treasury view is that Britain should stay in the Customs Uniom, and it will try to keep spinning matters out until after the next election, when there will be a new government with new manifesto commitments.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister’s article today is essentially a holding exercise, which reaffirms the Government’s commitment to taking “control of our laws, our immigration policy and how taxpayers’ money is spent” while also saying that “the details are incredibly complex and, as in any negotiation, there will have to be compromises”. This is a tantalising combination. Meanwhile, sand runs through the hour glass.