In Depth

Why Boris Johnson’s Brexit border plan is causing cabinet concern

Leaked internal letter suggests ministers are ‘making things up as they go’, says Labour

The government’s post-Brexit plan for the UK border could lead to smuggling, lawsuits and damage to Britain’s reputation, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss has warned fellow cabinet ministers.

In a letter leaked to Business Insider, Truss tells Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove that proposals due to come into force at the end of this year are “very concerning”. 

She also warns that the plan “could call into question Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory”, The Irish Times reports.

What are the UK’s plans for the border?

Although Britain formally left the EU on 31 January, cross-border trade has continued unaffected under the terms of the Brexit transition deal, which lasts until the end of the year.

From 1 January 2021, however, the UK will be outside the EU customs union and will be expected to monitor trade at its own border. Detailed government proposals are expected to be presented next week, but Boris Johnson has already given businesses an outline of the measures.

“Full border controls on goods entering the UK will not apply until July next year,” leaving a six-month gap between the end of EU regulations and the start of the new customs regime, The Guardian reported last month.

The plan was welcomed by industry leaders, who said they needed time to adapt to what the newspaper describes as “the most dramatic change to international trading since 1993 when the single market was introduced”.

Why is Truss unhappy?

The international trade secretary’s “explosive letter” was provoked by Downing Street’s plan to “give the EU preferential treatment” between January and July next year, says The Telegraph.

This would “breach WTO rules if there is no UK-EU free trade agreement in place”, because the international body requires that the same trading terms to be offered to all countries not covered by such a deal, the newspaper explains.

Truss also seems unconvinced that border arrangements would prevent smuggling, even after the six-month grace period.

“I would like assurances that we are able to deliver full control at these ports by July 2021 and that plans are in place from January to mitigate the risk of goods being circumvented from ports implementing full controls,” she wrote.

Truss’s letter “confirms fears that several ministers have been making things up as they go, with a lack of awareness of the real-world consequences of border policies they’ve had four years to develop”, said Labour’s Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and shadow Cabinet Office minister.

What about Northern Ireland?

The Irish border proved to be a sticking point in the negotiations that led to Theresa May’s Brexit deal and Johnson’s revised offer.

“While both the EU and UK agreed to the withdrawal agreement at the beginning of the year,” says The Independent, “disputes about how it should be implemented in practice have emerged in the months since.”

Truss’s letter implies that all goods arriving in Northern Ireland could have EU tariffs applied by default, since the system for applying UK or EU tariffs as appropriate will not be in place.

“This section of the letter is likely to fuel concerns in Northern Ireland that businesses in the province will face significant new costs as of next year,” says Business Insider.

According to The Independent, Truss’s comments “echo concerns from Brussels, which says Mr Johnson’s plans not to impose controls on goods travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain do not stand up to scrutiny and amount to backsliding on what he signed up to in January”.

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