May ‘will not trap UK in EU orbit over deal’
Growing Cabinet tension on ‘backstop’
POLITICS: Theresa May said she would never agree a Brexit deal which “traps” Britain in a customs union with the EU but refused to bow to pressure to harden her stance by committing to a time-limit on the so-called Irish “backstop” plan.
The pledge came amid speculation over possible Ministerial resignations.
THERESA MAY yesterday insisted she would never agree a Brexit deal which “traps” Britain in a customs union with the EU but refused to bow to growing pressure to harden her negotiating stance by committing to a timelimit on the so-called Irish “backstop” plan.
The Prime Minister’s pledge came amid speculation over possible Ministerial resignations if she gives too much ground ahead of a crunch Brussels summit next week.
Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party which props up her minority Government have made clear their vehement opposition to suggestions that Mrs May could commit to a backstop with no end date, concerned it would leave the UK in a de facto customs union indefinitely.
It is understood that a number of Ministers voiced concern at a meeting with the PM in Downing Street on Thursday that such a plan could indefinitely prevent the UK from seeking trade deals elsewhere in the world, touted as a major Brexit prize.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab broke cover to insist the backstop must be “time limited” and could not leave the UK in “indefinite limbo”.
He said: “It would have to be finite, it would have to be short and it would have to be, I think, timelimited in order for it to be supported here.
“What we cannot do is see the UK locked in via the backdoor to a customs union arrangement which would leave us in an indefinite limbo. That would not be leaving the EU.”
But the EU is mounting resistance to any specific time limit being included in the Brexit deal.
Mrs May’s inner Cabinet meeting on Thursday focused on plans for a “temporary customs arrangement” to ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains open in the case that no broader EU/UK trade agreement has been finalised.
The current proposals state that the Government “expects” this arrangement to remain in place no later than the end of December 2021 but does not specifically commit to a time limit.
As officials continued to wrangle over the precise wording of the agreement in Brussels, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister would never agree to a deal which would trap the UK in a backstop permanently.”
But Brexit-backing former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said a backstop without a specific time limit risks making the UK a “permanent EU colony”, as Brussels could simply refuse to undo the deal in the future.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond became the first senior Government figure to suggest that the backstop – designed to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic open in the case that no broader EU/UK trade deal is finalised – will “probably” have to come into effect for a period.
But the DUP, which has threatened to vote down the Budget, urged Mrs May to resist Brussels pressure.
DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said there would be “consequences” for Mrs May if she walked away from her promise to protect the Union.
“We are simply reminding her, you are being torn at the moment between what we believe are your gut instincts and your sound principles on the Union and at the same time the bullying, threatening behaviour of the EU,” said Mr Wilson at a meeting of DUP MPs and Assembly members in Portadown.
“Go with your principles, go with your instinct, go with your responsibility to the people of the UK and show the EU negotiators the door.”
Tory Brexiteer Steve Baker said any backstop which went beyond a simple trade deal amounted to single market membership, which “won’t wash” with voters.
CONCERNS: Theresa May’s pledge came amid speculation that over possible Ministerial resignations if she gives too much ground ahead of a Brussels summit next month.