Brexit customs row: Liam Fox reveals group on Theresa May's partnership model has met just once
The group looking at Theresa May’s preferred model of a post-Brexit “customs partnership” with the European Union has met just once, Liam Fox revealed today.
Cabinet ministers were last month split into two groups to thrash out competing plans for future customs ties - the 'customs partnership' and 'maximum facilitation', with Downing Street said to be backing the first option.
But Mr Fox, the Brexiteer International Trade Secretary who has sat on the group looking at the customs partnership, told the Today programme the group had met "once so far" - while Whitehall sources told the Daily Mail that a group on so-called "max fac" has held six meetings or conference calls.
Mr Fox said: "Our group’s met once so far… We’ve been waiting for a report coming from experts and officials, which we have just received. We meet again, parliament’s not of course been sitting in the past week, we’re back now this week."
The “customs partnership” model would mean closer regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU after Brexit and involve Britain collecting tariffs on behalf of Brussels.
But Whitehall sources told City AM this week that the plan was "done", adding: "That’s not just the Brexiteer view, that’s the view now from the Cabinet Office and even Downing Street.”
Pressed today on whether the plan had been shelved, Mr Fox said: "I have raised a number of objections to it in terms of our ability to conduct an independent trade policy.
"And I’ll have to be persuaded of the answers to the questions that I’ve put into that particular piece of work before I would be able to accept it."
He also pushed back at an estimate from HMRC boss Jon Thompson that the 'max fac' option - which would rely on trusted trader schemes to try and ensure smooth trade without a hard border in Northern Ireland - would cost £20bn.
"Well there are other groups who say that that figure may be far too high," he said. "We’ve not had that information presented to ministers as a whole."
FRESH DUP ROW
It comes as the government grapples to find a solution that will avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland while appeasing Brexiteers’ demands that the government is able to strike free trade deals around the world.
The DUP accused Downing Street of coming up with “half-cooked ideas” as it rejected a proposed plan to give Northern Ireland joint EU and UK status.
The plan, first reported by The Sun, would also create a 10-mile deep “buffer zone” along Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland.
The DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said the government needed to “put down its foot” with the EU rather than offering “convoluted” compromises.
“None of these proposals have been discussed with the DUP and at first examination they appear to be at best contradictory,” he said in a statement reported by the Telegraph.
“These convoluted arrangements only arise because of the Government’s failure to make it clear to the EU that regardless of Barnier and EU negotiators' attempts to keep us in the Customs Union and the Single Market, we are leaving...
“Instead of moving from one set of half-cooked ideas to the other it is now time for the Government to put down its foot and make it clear to EU negotiators that the Prime Minister stands by her commitment that no deal is better than a bad deal and if they want to avoid the consequences then they need to stop dismissing the perfectly feasible ideas that were put forward in August of last year.”
The new plan would be a workaround of the Brexiteers’ favoured “max-fac” solution.
However a Number 10 spokesman dismissed the idea, according to the Guardian: “The prime minister has been absolutely clear that we cannot and will not accept a customs border down the Irish sea, and that we will preserve the constitutional integrity of the UK’s common market.
“Work is ongoing on customs plans that will achieve this, as well as ensuring we can strike trade deals around the world, that trade remains as frictionless as possible, and that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.