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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

UK prime minister faces cabinet rebellion over Irish border plan

Brexit secretary David Davis is reported to be set to quit over issue

Mr Davis and his fellow eurosceptic ministers are ready to confront the PM over the policy at a crunch meeting of her Brexit ‘war cabinet’ on Thursday Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Mr Davis and his fellow eurosceptic ministers are ready to confront the PM over the policy at a crunch meeting of her Brexit ‘war cabinet’ on Thursday Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a cabinet rebellion over plans to leave the European Union, in a conflict that could destabilise her entire government.

Brexit secretary David Davis is said to be furious about Mrs May’s plan to tie the UK into EU customs rules for an indefinite period after the country leaves the bloc next March. She argues it is a necessary step to break the deadlock in talks with the EU.

The UK’s proposal was due to be given to the EU side Wednesday, but British negotiators are holding it back while the pair argue, officials said.

The issue rapidly became toxic, with Mr Davis and his allies failing to quell speculation that he could quit over the row. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Trade Secretary Liam Fox, and Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, also object to the plan.

Mr Davis is the public face of the British negotiating team and losing him at such a delicate moment in the talks would be a potentially disastrous blow to the prime minister’s strategy.

At the head of a fragile government with no automatic majority in parliament, Mrs May also knows that the resignation of the minister responsible for her central Brexit policy could trigger a campaign to oust her among disillusioned members of her Tory party.

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Mr Davis and his fellow eurosceptic ministers are ready to confront the PM over the policy at a crunch meeting of her Brexit "war cabinet" on Thursday. He will not back down ahead of the meeting, although the minister and Mrs May could hold talks alone in a bid to hammer out their differences beforehand.

He did little to dampen talk in the media about resignation when, on Wednesday, he said that it is up to Mrs May whether he stays in her cabinet or not. Some government officials privately believe he will quit if the PM does not back down, while others say they do not know what Mr Davis would do.

The latest crisis facing the premier is one she thought she had avoided. Last month, Mrs May persuaded pro-Brexit ministers in her inner cabinet that they should support her plan for a temporary customs arrangement with the EU, until a new system comes into force.

But Mr Davis apparently objected when he saw the document’s wording because although it stipulated that the extension of EU customs rules would be time limited, it did not say exactly when the arrangement would come to an end.

Brexit backers in Mrs May’s Conservative party fear the result will be that the UK is forced to remain inside the EU’s tariff rules forever, destroying their vision for the country’s future outside the bloc. If the UK applies the EU’s tariffs on goods imports, it will not be able to negotiate effective trade deals with other countries, eurosceptic Tories believe.

“It’s imperative that we don’t leave an open-ended commitment,” said MP and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith. “The government’s chief negotiator is David Davis, and he wants to have an end date. We should support him and ensure there is an early end date.”

Brexit talks area deadlocked over how to avoid customs checks on the border with Ireland. The return of a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is something both the UK and the EU say they are determined to avoid, amid concern checkpoints would endanger the peace on the island.

Mrs May says she wants to fix the issue by negotiating a sweeping free trade deal with the EU that removes the need for border checks on goods. The EU is insisting that there must be a “backstop” plan in case these new trade terms do not deal with the issue.

The difficulty for Mrs May is that while her pro-Brexit colleagues in London are desperate for a strict and clear end date to be agreed for the backstop plan, the EU side says any backstop must not be time-limited and should apply unless and until any suitable alternative can be found.