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Analysis

Customs u-turn joins long line of May’s Brexit flip-flops

by Luke Lythgoe | 03.05.2018

Theresa May is performing yet another Brexit u-turn. This time Brexiters in her cabinet have forced the prime minister to drop her preferred “customs partnership” plan for the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU. She is now seeking “revised proposals” on the matter.

It’s not the first time May has been forced to ditch an unworkable Brexit policy – and it won’t be the last. To get a deal, she will probably have to embrace a customs union and give up her plan to diverge from EU regulations too.

The prime minister continues to insist Brexit means we’ll “take control of our borders, laws and money”. But that assertion has been undermined again and again since she triggered Article 50.

Here’s our recap of prime minister’s most significant flip-flops so far since she laid out her Brexit red lines in early 2017.

Stop paying ‘vast contributions’?

“The days of Britain making vast contributions to the European Union every year will end.”

Lancaster House speech, January 2017

In her transition deal, May has agreed to continue paying into the EU budget in 2019 and 2020, an estimated sum of £35-39 billion or more. However, the transition won’t be long enough to secure the comprehensive trade deal May wants. The best guess is that five years is needed. Extending the transition this long could cost the UK an additional £36 billion.

May has also said she wants to participate in key scientific, educational and cultural programmes run by the EU, making an “ongoing contribution to cover our fair share of the costs”.

Take control of our laws?

“We will take back control of our laws and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain.”

– Lancaster House speech, January 2017

As of March, the UK has signed up to a transition deal in which we follow all the rules of the EU’s single market, plus any new rules, until the end of 2020 – including free movement of people. May has also agreed to a “backstop” solution to the Irish border problem under which Northern Ireland will stay aligned with EU regulation in many areas. If she doesn’t want a hard customs border in the Irish Sea, this could also be extended to the rest of the UK.

What’s more, May has suggested key industries – pharmaceuticals, aviation and chemicals – essentially become vassal sectors by following EU rules after Brexit. In all these cases, the UK will no longer have a vote on new EU laws. How’s that taking back control?

And purely on the ECJ point, since last autumn May now only refers to ending its “direct jurisdiction”.

Terrorism ‘bargaining chip’

“Failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.”

– Lancaster House speech, January 2017

This was widely interpreted as a hamfisted attempt at blackmail. By her Florence speech in September, May was saying the UK is “unconditionally committed” to maintaining Europe’s security.

Demand a vote on the Brexit deal

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Singapore-style economy

(Outside the single market, the UK will be) “free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model.”

– Lancaster House speech, January 2017

May made clear in Florence that if the UK moved away from the EU’s regulatory framework it wouldn’t “try and attain an unfair competitive advantage”.

Transition rights turnaround

“I’m clear there’s a difference between those people who came prior to us leaving and those who will come when they know the UK is no longer a member of the EU.”

February 1, 2018

The government backtracked on this later in the same month. The transition deal went even further, giving right of residence to all EU citizens and their family members arriving in the UK before the end of the transition period, plus the right to permanent residency after five years.

Trimmed transition

“How long the period is should be determined simply by how long it will take to prepare and implement the new processes and new systems that will underpin that future partnership.”

Florence speech, September 2018

May reckoned this approach meant transition should be “around two years”. In the transition deal, May ultimately agreed a hard stop to the transition period at the end of 2020 – just 21 months after Brexit Day.

This is the EU’s preferred date, since it aligns perfectly with its current budget cycle. If we need a longer transition to stop us falling off a cliff in 2021, we’ll have to beg the EU to extend it. The other countries are bound to extract a price.

Bye-bye ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’

“No deal… is better than a bad deal.”

– Lancaster House speech (and several other times)

The prime minister now says that no deal would be a “failure in the eyes of history and a damaging blow to the future of our continent… so great that it is beholden on all of us involved to demonstrate the leadership and flexibility needed to ensure that we succeed”.

It’s good she’s changed her mind, given that crashing out of the EU would be bonkers.

As reality bites, it would be good if she flip-flopped on some other things – such as giving the people a vote on the Brexit deal.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

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