May unable to bridge divisions in her cabinet over the Customs Union

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves No. 10 Downing Street to attend the Prime Minister's Questions in the Houses of Commons, in London, Britain, 14 March 2018. Mrs May is expected to update the Commons on Britain's reaction to the alleged involvement of Russia in the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter who were attacked with a nerve agent on 04 March 2018 in Salisbury. EPA-EFE/WILL OLIVER

May unable to bridge divisions in her cabinet over the Customs Union


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Theresa May‘s view that the UK should retain regulatory alignment with the EU’s Customs Union regime was dismissed by foreign secretary Boris Johnson as “crazy” on Tuesday.

The foreign secretary’s statement is not nearly as dismissive as the one expressed last week by Conservative backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, who called the idea “cretinous.”

The idea of a “customs partnership” is to retain the current status quo without a formal UK membership of the Customs Union. In this scenario, the UK would collect import tariffs on behalf of the EU and would follow EU regulations, voluntarily. The parliament would retain the sovereign prerogative to deviate from the current status quo,.

“That’s not taking back control of your trade policy, it’s not taking back control of your laws, it’s not taking back control of your borders and it’s actually not taking back control of your money either, because tariffs would get paid centrally back to Brussels,” Boris Johnson told the Daily Mail.

Mr Johnson’s interview with the Daily Mail makes clear that the rift between Remainers and Leavers within Theresa May’s cabinet is becoming unbridgable.

The British prime minister has toyed with another idea, namely relying on technology to minimize customs checks. The idea is to allow major companies to pay duties in bulk, thereby avoiding controls at the border by trusted trader schemes. In this scheme, small and medium businesses would be altogether exempt from duties.

However, this idea has been dismissed in Brussels and Dublin as “magical thinking.” In any event, opting for this scheme will not rid the UK of border checks, but will only limit them. That spells trouble for the governments’ commitment to a no-border solution for Ireland.

Over the weekend, Business Secretary Greg Clark reiterated the view he shares with Chancellor Philip Hammond that simply leaving the Customs Union risks thousands of jobs. The main industrial lobby in the UK (CBI) welcomed Mr Clark’s views. On Monday, these views were echoed by former education secretary Nicky Morgan, who told BBC Radio 5 that those who “shout loudest” do not necessarily represent the majority of Conservatives.

On an interview on Sunday with ITV, Rees-Mogg dismissed the fear of job losses by making reference to the so-called “project fear” launched by Remain campaigners.

In support of Conservative backbenchers, the leader of the far-right Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster, supports the idea that the flow of goods does not require a customs union. Dublin finds the idea of any border between Northern Ireland and the Republic unacceptable and has warned that there will be no compromise on the issue.

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