Boris, Brexit and the Border continue to cause strife
Denis Staunton: There is no obscuring Theresa May’s tangle as she seeks to unite Tories
During a meeting with Conservative backbenchers on Monday, Theresa May is reported to have slapped down Jacob Rees-Mogg. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry teased Boris Johnson over his role in the cabinet’s split over Britain’s future customs relationship with the EU.
“May I begin by thanking the foreign secretary for leading our cross-party efforts over the last two weeks to destroy the prime minister’s ‘customs partnership’ proposal? I trust that he finished off the job earlier this morning. Unfortunately, however, that leaves us with his own crazy Mad Max – I mean max fac – proposal,” she said.
Johnson responded by describing Labour’s position on the customs union as “absolutely clouded in obscurity”. But there is no obscuring the tangle Theresa May has found herself in as she seeks to unite her party behind a single position which can be reconciled with her promise to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
During a meeting with Conservative backbenchers on Monday, May is reported to have slapped down Jacob Rees-Mogg after the arch-Brexiteer suggested that Britain should simply keep the Border open after Brexit and dare Dublin to install infrastructure at the EU’s behest. May told him that EU rules obliged Ireland to protect the single market and customs area and warned that his approach could antagonise moderate nationalist opinion in Northern Ireland.
If Rees-Mogg was chastened, he showed no sign of it in an opinion piece in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph in which he urged the prime minister not to take Brussels too seriously on the Border. He accused Brussels of playing up the issue to win further concessions from Britain and complained that Irish politicians such as Simon Coveney were using “inflammatory, unhelpful rhetoric” for domestic political reasons.
“The Irish Government needs to understand that if it obliges us to choose between the Republic and the Union, we will choose the Union,” he wrote.
May has tasked two groups of ministers to work out how each of the two customs options could be made to work. Brexiteers have until now shown no sign of weakening in their resistance to the customs partnership and the talk around Westminster is of “max fac plus delay”. This would see Britain remaining in the customs union beyond the end of the post-Brexit transition period at the end of 2020 until the arrangements are in place at its borders to make trade sufficiently frictionless.