May U-turns on rebel Brexiters’ customs plan, saying it could solve Irish border problem

  • Plan ‘could involve technological solutions’, a suggestion similar to one pushed by hard Brexiters but ditched by government earlier this year
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 12:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 12:56am

Theresa May has offered a sop to rebellious hard Brexiters by suggesting technological solutions previously dismissed by 10 Downing Street could be used to maintain an invisible border between the UK and Ireland.

The unexpected change of tack was discussed at a two-and-a-half hour cabinet meeting on Tuesday, when the prime minister’s spokesman said ministers discussed “the potential for alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” in Ireland.

The spokesman said one of the alternative arrangements “could involve technological solutions” – a suggestion reminiscent of the “maximum facilitation” model pushed by hard Brexiters but ditched by the government earlier this year.

May’s decision to put it back on the table comes as the prime minister is desperately trying to prevent rebellious Tory MPs from sending in enough letters to the party’s backbench 1922 Committee to trigger a vote of no confidence.

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The number of letters publicly submitted to the committee chairman, Graham Brady, declaring no confidence in May stalled at 26 on Monday, well short of the 48 needed, though Eurosceptic MPs insisted more had been submitted privately.

Earlier on Tuesday, Jacob Rees-Mogg called on Tory backbenchers to push for a vote of no confidence immediately, otherwise May would remain in post for years.

“I think it is now or the prime minister will lead the Conservatives into the next election,” he said.

May is expected to head to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon for more negotiations with Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, on the final political declaration for the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

Downing Street would not say when the document would be published, although the declaration and the already published legally binding withdrawal agreement could be signed off in Brussels at a special European summit on Sunday.

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A pamphlet published by think tank Global Britain and the European Research Group restated the case for “max-fac” on Tuesday morning, a model under which customs checks enabled by technology happen away from borders.

The government had previously rejected it after tax chiefs warned it could cost up to £20 billion (US$25.6 billion) a year to implement. There was also widespread scepticism outside Brexiter circles that the technology was ready.

But with May under intense political pressure as the Brexit negotiations reach their concluding stages, Number 10 said it was “looking at what alternative arrangements might exist” and hoped one of them could eliminate the need for the Northern Ireland backstop.

The UK and the EU hope to reach a long-term, free-trade deal to avoid a hard border returning between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The previously stated alternatives to that involve extending the transition period beyond 2020, or deploying the backstop, which is unpopular on the Tory right and with the Democratic Unionist party, which props up May’s government.

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At a morning lobby briefing for journalists, the spokesman said: “I think there was discussion in cabinet about the fact that the withdrawal agreement recognises and keeps open the potential for alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“Both the text of the Northern Ireland protocol itself and the outline political declaration note, and I quote: ‘Note the [European] Union’s and the UK’s intention to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing’.”