Divide and dither: May’s latest barmy Brexit scheme

by Luke Lythgoe | 11.05.2018

Another day, another contrived bid by Theresa May to exorcise her Brexit demons. This time she’s dividing her “war cabinet” sub-committee into two sub-sub-committees and setting each the task of exploring the two main options for customs after Brexit. It looks less like a case of divide and rule, more of divide and dither.

Overhanging everything is the fact that neither option satisfactorily solves the Irish border problem. And both have been comprehensively rejected by the EU.

Brexiters Liam Fox and Michael Gove, plus Remain-supporting David Lidington, have been tasked with looking at May’s preferred “customs partnership” option. This would see the UK collecting tax on behalf of Brussels for imported goods destined for the EU’s single market. Boris Johnson has written the idea off as “crazy” and said it would create “a whole new web of bureaucracy”.

Meanwhile, former Remainers Karen Bradley and Greg Clark will be joined by David Davis to explore the Brexiters’ “maximum facilitation” (“max fac”) option. This proposes technology and trusted trader schemes to avoid customs delays.

If that’s not how you thought government usually worked, that’s because it isn’t.

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The official explanation for this novel approach is that those ministers whose policy areas will be most affected by each proposal are looking into it. So Bradley as Northern Ireland secretary will be trying to find solutions to the border under “max fac”, while Fox as trade secretary is exploring the import-export logistics of the customs partnership idea.

But some see this as a sign that May is letting her customs partnership plan die with dignity. The central role of David Davis in making the “max fac” idea work is important, sources have told the Daily Mail. The Brexit secretary has strongly opposed the customs partnership, with repeated speculation that he would resign if it became policy.

One suggested evolution for “max fac” would be to delay it and get the technology in place first, during which time we’ll stay in a customs union with the EU. But this has been shot down as “not a goer” by sources close to Boris Johnson, reports the Times. This is despite Nick Timothy, the prime minister‘s still-influential former chief of staff, backing the plan in yesterday‘s Telegraph.

Meanwhile May’s interminable dithering is having knock-on effects across Westminster.

The government dare not bring back two key Brexit bills to the House of Commons – on trade and customs – until the autumn because of fears May could be defeated, senior Tories have admitted to the FT. What’s more, May has also abandoned plans to bring her EU Withdrawal Bill through Parliament before the Whitsun recess at the end of May, to consider the 14 amendments made by the House of Lords.

Stalled legislation means serious parliamentary business is at a standstill. As the FT flippantly points out, during this time of national turmoil one of the things being debated in the Commons next week is plastic coffee cups.

This rather predictable mess wasn’t mentioned, let alone interrogated, during the referendum campaign. If the public don’t like the interminable mess the government has gotten itself into, they should demand a people’s vote on whatever Brexit deal our dithering prime minister eventually manages to produce.

Edited by Quentin Peel