Conservative tensions over Brexit erupted again on Sunday as a senior UK minister fueled speculation that British Prime Minister Theresa May might be planning to revive a customs plan rejected by euroskeptic members of the government last week.
May was outnumbered at a meeting of her inner Cabinet on Wednesday last week as pro-Brexit ministers demanded a clean break from the EU customs regime, dismissing her plea for a compromise solution. It appeared to leave May facing a possible choice between staying in the customs union, or leaving without a deal. Either could see the Conservative Party destroy her government.
However, in a BBC interview, British Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark said the so-called “customs partnership” plan floated by May remained “on the table,” and that ministers had a “much more professional, collegiate discussion” than had been suggested.
His comments came amid reports that May is this week planning to present a tweaked version and urge previously skeptical ministers to back it.
Locking ministers in a room could be the answer to May’s customs headache.
Under a customs partnership, the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU and then refund exempt businesses.
Supporters say the plan would keep trade flowing and resolve the Northern Ireland border issue, but Brexit hardliners fear May would tie the UK too closely to the EU.
Clark disclosed that he spoke to Toyota Motor Corp officials in the UK last week as he raised concerns that thousands of jobs could be at risk unless trade “frictions” are kept to a minimum after Britain leaves the EU.
He also said that a customs transition period with the EU could be extended, as it might take until 2023 to put new customs infrastructure in place.
His comments were praised by former British home secretary Amber Rudd, who said on Twitter that Clark was backing a Brexit that “protects existing jobs and future investment.”
Confederation of British Industry director-general Carolyn Fairbairn also issued a supportive statement.
However, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who issued a thinly veiled warning last week that his euroskeptic group of lawmakers could pull its support from May, revived the slogan used before the 2016 referendum to attack the campaign for staying in the EU.
“This Project Fear has been so thoroughly discredited that you would have thought it would have come to an end by now,” he said on ITV’s Peston on Sunday show. “We trade successfully all over the world. The delays on goods coming into Southampton are tiny.”
Writing in the Sun on Sunday newspaper, days after a stronger-than-predicted Conservative performance in local-council elections, May declared her “absolute determination” to make a success of Brexit.
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