In Depth

What is Theresa May's customs partnership plan?

Boris Johnson dismisses proposal as ‘crazy’

Boris Johnson has put renewed pressure on Theresa May to drop her plan for a customs partnership with the European Union.

The foreign secretary said the proposal was “totally untried” and “crazy”, raising speculation that he might resign if it were to go ahead, reports Sky News.

The customs relationship with the bloc will be “a vital part of any future trade deal, as the UK exports 50% of its goods to the EU”, says the BBC, but the issue has deeply divided May’s cabinet.

What is May’s customs partnership plan?

The arrangement would see UK officials collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU for any goods coming to the UK that were subsequently destined for any other EU member state.

Businesses would claim back any tariff rebates from the Government if the goods stayed in the UK. “Goods could then flow freely from Britain to the rest of the EU and across the Irish border without further tariffs or rules of origin checks,” says the Financial Times.

The UK government has admitted that the plan would be “unprecedented” and “challenging to implement”.

Johnson told the Daily Mail: “It’s totally untried and would make it very, very difficult to do free trade deals.

“If you have the new customs partnership, you have a crazy system whereby you end up collecting the tariffs on behalf of the EU at the UK frontier.”

The system would not help the UK take back control of our trade policies, laws, borders or our money, he added.

A spokesman for the prime minister said May still had “full confidence” in Johnson, but pointed out that he and the rest of the Cabinet had previously supported the customs partnership proposal as a future option.

When May outlined the idea at Mansion House in March, Johnson even posted a photo of himself holding a copy of the speech and giving a thumbs-up.

And the other option?

Brexiteers want May to agree to a streamlined customs arrangement in which new technology and “trusted trader” schemes minimise the need for checks on goods at the border between the UK and Ireland. The so-called “maximum facilitation” arrangement “would make an unequivocal break with the EU regime”, says The Guardian.

Earlier this month EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s team called both options “unworkable”, but “British Brexit officials say special scorn was reserved for the second ‘max fac’ option, which would still leave a customs border in Ireland”, reports the FT.

Could the issue topple May?

Sixty Tory MPs from the pro-Leave European Research Group (ERG) have written to May warning that her proposal is unworkable and could cause the “collapse” of the Government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, head of the ERG, said his group was “not in the business of making threats”, but warned that the proposed customs partnership was “deeply flawed and would not take us out of the EU”.

Nevertheless, according to Politico’s Jack Blanchard, “allies insist May will press ahead in making the case for her option”, arguing that the customs partnership is a smart compromise.

A spokesperson for the PM said: “Following last week's sub-committee meeting, it was agreed that there are unresolved issues in relation to both models and that further work is needed. The Prime Minister asked officials to take forward that work as a priority.”

Financial Times journalist James Blitz suggests that pro-Leave ministers may be making empty threats and recognise that May resigning is not in their best interests.

“Hard Brexiters get loud and aggressive when they are losing a key fight on Brexit,” Blitz says. “But they know, too, that they cannot bring Mrs May down, for fear of derailing Brexit altogether. So their hands are tied.”

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