Brexit Brief: Decision Time Approaches

Posted on 3rd May 2018

‘One week’ to unite cabinet on customs

Prime Minister Theresa May has one week to find a new proposal to manage the customs relationship between the UK and EU after Brexit after it became clear the cabinet would not unite around her preferred proposal.  Senior British cabinet ministers met yesterday to discuss the customs arrangement they prefer the government adopt as a negotiating position in talks with Brussels over the future relationship. Brussels had already rejected one – the ‘customs partnership’ – in which Britain would effectively administer the EU’s customs border and refund goods destined for the UK, but Theresa May backs it as the solution to the Irish border dilemma.  The UK wishes to maintain a seamless border with the Republic of Ireland, owing to the historical sensitivities of having physical infrastructure dividing the island, while leaving the EU customs union, which would otherwise require such infrastructure to enforce rules and collect tariffs – without then drawing an internal border in the UK.  The partnership had the support of the Treasury and other former Remainers in the cabinet as the best option for business continuity, but faced heavy criticism from the Brexiteers in cabinet and prominent ones outside it, who described it as convoluted and condemned the dependence on EU rules it would require.

Brexit Secretary v. Brexit aide

The divide over the proposal appears starkest between Brexit Secretary David Davis and the prime minister’s chief Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, who is its chief architect.  Reports emerged over the weekend that Davis was ready to resign if Robbins was not side-lined in Brexit negotiations.  Relations between the two men have been strained since Davis’s department was established and Robbins was appointed its chief civil servant until last year, when he left to work directly for No. 10.

Migration scandal claims top Remainer

The balance of cabinet between Leave- and Remain-supporting ministers was disrupted this week after Amber Rudd resigned as home secretary.  Rudd, who was a leading Remain campaigner in the 2016 referendum and advocate of a soft Brexit, resigned after denying the existence of deportation targets of illegal immigrants, then denying she had set them after they emerged in a leak.  A subsequent leak revealed she boasted of these same targets in a letter to the prime minister.  Rudd resigned later that day and apologised for “inadvertently misleading” parliament.  Her replacement, Sajid Javid, is a long-time Eurosceptic (although campaigned reluctantly for Remain in 2016).  Deportation targets have caused controversy in recent days after it appears they incentivised immigration enforcement authorities to deport legally resident individuals, and potentially British citizens, whose status was undocumented after arriving in the country decades ago at the invitation of the post-war British government.  Having arrived after the war when children did not require passports, and remaining after a decision to destroy the landing cards of the boats which carried them here, the lack of rigorous documentation proving right of residence meant they fell victim to a policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants.  A further complication: the ‘hostile environment’ policy was engineered by none other than the prime minister, who now faces the challenge of reassuring EU citizens they and their children will not face the same problems decades hence.

Electoral test for May today

Theresa May faces a difficult set of local elections today as Westminster-watchers focus on London, where the Conservatives are expected to do badly.  After last year’s general election, in which May lost a majority in what was supposed to be a landslide victory, Conservatives are anxious to see whether these elections confirm that the party has been locked out of large, liberal cities, although polling indicates they’ll do better elsewhere.  It is unclear what role Brexit will play in the campaign, although EU citizens are entitled to vote in these elections, which is unlikely to do May any favours. Meanwhile, Labour has faced questions over anti-Semitism in its ranks and Conservative inroads in long-held post-industrial areas, which may dampen their own results.

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