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Wednesday 2 May 2018

Rees-Mogg to the rescue: last night the powerful Conservative European Research Group sent a 30-page document to Downing Street demanding the prime minister drop plans for a ruinous ‘customs partnership’ – the BBC was also forwarded a copy. The group, headed by Brexit hero, Jacob Rees-Mogg argues that remaining part of the EU’s external border will make signing trade deals with the EU “impossible”, rendering the Department for International Trade “Obsolete”.

Number 10 denies it is now faced with an ultimatum. Nonsense. The document itself is an implicit ultimatum and is backed by a very vocal threat from a senior member of the ERG that its 60 members will withdraw their support in the event May opts for her self-defeating partnership proposal. The government’s working majority is only 13.

This is a watershed moment. For almost a year the European Research Group has been diligently pointing out the errors in May’s negotiation and the opportunities awaiting Britain should the prime minister make a clean break with the failing bloc. However, the group has resisted landing a blow. Finally, it has shown some teeth.

Theresa May will today convene her Brexit ‘war Cabinet’. With arch-Remainer Amber-Rudd out of the way, the PM is poised for her first proper showdown with Cabinet Brexiteers over the customs conundrum. The Remainers and the Leavers are no longer evenly matched.

Over the weekend, associates of David Davis and other sources said he, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox would resign if the government capitulated over customs at today’s meeting. In her corner, Theresa May only has Philip Hammond – whose department has done more than any to promote the partnership – and Business Secretary Greg Clark.

And it’s not just the numbers at home that are against the prime minister. Rees-Mogg astutely pointed out on the Today programme this morning that Brussels has dismissed her partnership concept as “magical thinking”. That’s because it is.

The ERG document points out that if Britain were to remain in the same customs zone, we would have to continue to comply with European regulations, EU courts would beckon. Vicky Ford, Rees-Mogg’s adversary in the Radio 4 studio, hid behind the usual trope about waiting until the details are revealed – the weakness of her argument could not have been more obvious. “You should always write off unworkable options,” replied Rees-Mogg.

The Brexit hero also said he would not vote against the prime minister, but herein lies the problem for our side. While the legislative framework (Withdrawal Bill etc.) is sound, for better or for worse, the customs question remain outside of MP meddling, there will not be a vote until October when the terms of Britain’s future trading arrangement are settled in one go.

May does face rebellion within her own ranks, but should the EU accept the customs partnership, when the time comes, she will surely gather enough votes from the opposition benches to see it through, which is why the ERG deserve credit for forcing the issue at this earlier stage, piling maximum pressure on the hesitant prime minister. According to Sun May and Hammond plan to dig in for the long haul. Let us hope their spirit breaks soon.