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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Theresa May set for Brexit showdown on customs union

British PM will trigger a series of votes in the House of Commons which could split her party in two

Theresa May will trigger a showdown between the factions of her Conservative Party when the EU Withdrawal Bill is presented before the House of Commons in June. Will Oliver / EPA
Theresa May will trigger a showdown between the factions of her Conservative Party when the EU Withdrawal Bill is presented before the House of Commons in June. Will Oliver / EPA

After months of delay, British Prime Minister Theresa May will bite the Brexit bullet in June, bringing the European Union Withdrawal Bill back to Parliament.

It means a showdown between the factions of her Conservative Party. The confrontation will reveal how many Tories are prepared to rebel against her over whether Britain should seek a customs union with the EU.

Mrs May's inner circle is still split over the sort of customs relationship it should seek with Europe, but the prime minister is committed to forcing a decision by the European Council at the end of June, when EU leaders meet for a crunch summit.

But even as Mrs May prepared to settle internal fights, on Wednesday her Brexit strategy suffered a series of blows.

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Brexit a threat to flow of goods in and out of Europe

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Most seriously, Britain’s chief taxman threw a grenade into the customs debate, revealing that the model preferred by some members of her Cabinet would cost business between £17-20 billion (Dh83-98bn) a year. Jon Thompson, chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs, said even the model the PM favours could cost as much as £3.4bn a year.

He spoke hours after Brexit minister Suella Bravermen was forced to admit that Britain will have to settle its divorce bill from the EU even if it doesn’t get the future trade deal Mrs May wants.

The day finished with two figures who disagree about almost every aspect of Brexit both agreeing that the government was getting it wrong. Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former representative at the EU, used a speech in Glasgow to describe current policies as based on “fantasies, or incoherent and muddled thinking”.

Meanwhile Dominic Cummings, who ran the 2016 Brexit campaign, described the situation as a “shambles”. In a blogpost that was as rude about Brexiteers as it was about the government, he described the current debate as “delusional” and the government as having “no credible policy”.

Mrs May has put off difficult Brexit votes until now, because with no majority in the lower House of Commons, she could not be sure of winning them. The EU Withdrawal Bill suffered multiple defeats in the House of Lords, resulting in the government now asking the Commons to reverse 15 amendments, including dealing with the customs union issue.

Conservative politicians were told in a private meeting on Wednesday that all leave has been cancelled for early June, according to a government official. Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, could make a public announcement of the scheduling of votes as soon as Thursday, according to two officials.

The European Research Group (ERG), a caucus of Conservatives who want maximum distance from the EU, urged Mrs May to bring on the votes, arguing that she will win them, and thus demonstrate to other EU leaders that she has support for her strategy. ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg said on Tuesday that an EU summit in late June was an “opportunity” for Mrs May to match deeds to her words.

Whether things play out that way depends on how successful the government whips are at getting those Conservative politicians who support a customs union to toe the line or simply abstain. One tactic might be to encourage those who are determined to rebel to spread their rebellions out over the 15 amendments, allowing them to say they had voted against the government without actually defeating it.

But warnings of the costs of leaving the customs union and deep splits within the government could yet encourage the rebels to stick to their guns.