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Friday 4 May 2018

Britain will not be able to leave the Customs Union until 2023, reports today’s Telegraph. In addition to the details from Wednesday’s inner Brexit Cabinet covered in yesterday’s Brexit Brunch, it has emerged that a briefing at the same meeting delivered by Theresa May’s pro-EU Sherpa, Oliver Robbins explained to ministers that the technology needed for either of the two proposed plans for “frictionless trade” – known as the new customs partnership and maximum facilitation – will not be available until 2022 at the very earliest, but most likely later.

It is astonishing that this has only come to wider attention this late in the day, and even ministers seem to be naïve about what is and is not feasible. Yesterday, David Davis said he was “100%” sure Britain would have left the CU by 2020, the end-date of transition.

Thus far, every single briefing and document by customs experts has illustrated that whatever fanciful ideas there might have about how to keep a border open in Ireland and trade at ports like Dover and Holyhead unencumbered with checks, they will be unworkable until the next decade.

The grave concern is, seven years after the referendum when Britain still finds itself in the Single Market (members of the Customs Union must abide with EU regulations), Remainers will have the momentum to push for a reversal.

“There are genuine concerns that this delay will lead to the UK staying in the customs union permanently,” a sourced described as a “senior Brexiteer”, told the Telegraph, adding:

“Regardless of that, if we are still in the customs union by the time of the next general election in 2022 it will cause a catastrophe at the polls because we will not have delivered Brexit and voters will not have seen any benefits of leaving the EU.”

This is an agonizing situation that could have so easily been avoided. The government rightly chose to formally leave both the Customs Union and the Single Market, but failed miserably in mapping the red lines such a policy would entail, namely that there would had to be a conventional border in Ireland until a more open, risk-based system could be introduced with the aid of cutting-edge technology. Had the Conservatives done that, there would surely have been no back-stop in the treacherous withdrawal agreement keeping Britain aligned with the EU and in the same customs zone.

The blame lies squarely with the prime minister, who agreed to that backstop on the basis that her government would be able to find a solution, one that now officially will not exist for many years to come.

And what are the consequences for international trade? Britain will be able to sign commercial deals from 2020, but they will not be eligible for implementation for several more years. What kind of incentive does that give out to Britain’s trading partners throughout the globe?

On top of all this, the Times reports the EU member states have given Ireland a de facto veto. If Dublin is not happy with British border proposals, it has free reign to scupper the talks. May needs to take the initiative. Brussels is upping the ante on a no deal, but it’s all hot air. Ireland is totally dependent on the UK for trade and would be unlikely to thwart a future trade deal with Britain, particularly given the diplomatic fallout that would ensue. Nevertheless, May must take the initiative and threaten to cut off talks herself. She is being backed into an increasingly claustrophobic corner. It is time to break out.

Instead of doing that however, the prime minister is said to be trying to buy off one of Wednesday’s defectors to the Leave side over her mad customs partnership idea.

The Guardian reports Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson is said to be softer on the issue than Sajid Javid who joined him in siding with the Brexiteers in the inner Cabinet, but does not disclose how Number 10 plans to “pick him off”.

More encouraging however are reports in the Sun that May plans to combat the looming defeats over customs in the Commons by delaying the votes until the negotiation with the EU has been completed and put to Parliament in around October. She will then have until March to force through her Brexit legislation.

“The PM’s thinking is why jeopardise everything by losing a customs union vote if we don’t have to,” said a government source.

“There is time to get the bills through after October, but it will be very tight.”

Chief Whip Julian Smith, who this week told the PM she does not have the numbers in the House of Commons to push through her Brexit bills said: “I am damned if the prime minister is going to have her hands tied by a parliamentary vote.”