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Cabinet splits erupt over customs union as Theresa May seeks cross-party agreement

Emilio Casalicchio

3 min read

Cabinet splits on Brexit burst open last night as senior figures scrapped over whether Theresa May should pursue a softer EU departure.

Eurosceptic ministers Liam Fox and Liz Truss warned the Prime Minister not to offer permanent membership of the customs union in talks with opposition parties as a way of breaking the parliamentary deadlock.

But big-hitters on the other side of the divide, including Amber Rudd and David Gauke, said all options must remain on the table after the Brexit deal Mrs May clinched with Brussels was overwhelmingly rejected by MPs.

The Prime Minister reached out to Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders after her government survived a no-confidence motion last night - inviting them for talks in Downing Street to explore possible ways ahead.

Labour has insisted that permanent membership of a customs union with the EU must be part of any solution to the crisis - something Number 10 has so far ruled out because it would prevent the Government from agreeing trade deals with other countries.

Justice Secretary David Gauke told the BBC yesterday that Mrs May must not be “boxed in” by red lines, adding: “We need to be prepared to be flexible.”

Work and Pensions Secretary Ms Rudd joined his calls after the Government won the confidence vote, telling the same broadcaster that “nothing is off the table”.

Asked if the Government could back a permanent customs union, she said: “Everything has to be on the table because the priority is to find a negotiated settlement so we can leave the European Union.”

And asked if signing up to a permanent customs union with the bloc would split the Conservative party, she said: “I certainly hope not. I don’t think it would.”

But International Trade Secretary Dr Fox, in a separate BBC interview, warned: “As the Prime Minister says, Brexit has to mean Brexit, not a different relationship that doesn’t actually deliver on Brexit.

“I have consistently opposed the concept of a customs union and I have set out the reasons why.”

He said remaining in a customs union with the EU would mean “no independent trade policy” and would lead to a “major reduction in the benefits of Brexit,” such as signing new deals globally.

And Chief Secretary to the Treasury Ms Truss said the suggestion by Labour of striking free trade deals while remaining in a customs union was “nonsense”.

“My point is that those two are not compatible,” she told the Peston show on ITV last night.

“And my view, I do not support being in a customs union. I think it's hugely problematic and I don't believe many of my colleagues in the Conservative party support it.”

In a statement on the steps of Downing Street last night, Mrs May said she had already held talks on the Brexit way forward with the Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru.

However, no discussions have yet taken place with Mr Corbyn after he ruled out substantive talks unless Mrs May struck down any prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

Mrs May urged MPs to “put self-interest aside” and “work constructively together”.

“It will not be an easy task, but MPs know they have a duty to act in the national interest, reach a consensus and get this done,” she said.

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