The Business Secretary joined Andrew Marr this morning to keep alive the Prime Minister’s aspiration for a customs partnership with the EU after Brexit. On Wednesday, the Brexit inner cabinet voted down Theresa May’s proposal, which would see the UK government collect tariffs on behalf of the EU in return for greater access to the European market. Despite this setback, Clark argued strongly in favour of a ‘customs agreement that has the minimum of frictions’, as it would allow importation of important goods and materials ‘without any checks at the border’, something which he described as ‘crucial’ for British business:
AM: There are those of your colleagues who say that going down this route would be a denial of Brexit, ‘cretinous’, and after that Cabinet discussion you were part of, it has been destroyed as an option… Is it on the table?
GC: Yes… We’ve got three requirements for this new arrangement that would have to be in place. To minimise frictions at the border… It’s also to make sure that we conclude free trade agreements as a sovereign nation with other countries… and to make sure that we avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. These are challenging and so it was a substantial discussion to see what we can do too be able to achieve all three.
Marr also asked Clark about the re-admitting of Pendle Councillor Rosemary Carroll to the Conservatives after her suspension for sharing a racist joke comparing Asian people to dogs. Clark responded that ‘it seems to me that if they are the views of this person, she has no place in the Conservative party, and I’m sure the party authorities will have to investigate that’.
Arlene Foster – We need ‘less rhetoric’ and ‘more engagement’ from the EU
The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party was also invited by Marr to give her two cents on the current state of the Brexit negotiations. Foster was critical of the EU’s stance, telling Marr that the EU was forcing the UK government to find solutions to the issues raised by Northern Ireland leaving the customs union without offering any input itself:
AM: If you had to choose between staying inside the customs union to keep the Irish border open, and to avoid a border in the Irish Sea, would that be a price worth paying?
AF: I think it’s very clear that the British people voted to leave the customs union. That is our position as well. We don’t believe that we have to stay in the customs union to have free flow between ourselves and the Republic of Ireland… Back in August of last year, the government put forward various proposals. We were disappointed there was not the engagement from the European Union at that time. They were dismissed out of hand… What we would like to see from the European Union is less rhetoric and actually more engagement in relation to the pragmatic way forward, not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole nation as well.
Marr asked Foster about remarks made by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, where he said that the DUP had ‘abused its position’ to block the way forward on the Brexit negotiations. Foster replied that ‘What he was saying was that it was up to the UK to come up with a solution and [the EU] would wait for that solution to come… The way forward is to have a negotiation where both sides are engaged in the negotiation and we look for a solution that will make the difference.’
Jacob Rees-Mogg – A customs partnership would keep the UK in the EU
It was not long before the Chairman of the European Research Group took to the airwaves to express his distaste for the ‘customs partnership’ model espoused by Greg Clark. Appearing on Peston on Sunday, Jacob Rees-Mogg sought to rebut the notion that a customs partnership was compatible with leaving the EU:
RP: [The customs partnership] feels to many companies to be effectively the best way forward. Why do you oppose it so strongly?
JRM: The issue with the customs partnership is that to be effective it would have to keep us in the single market as well, because the idea would be that there would be a single point of entry for goods into the UK, any of which could then go on into the European Union, subject to tariffs being reclaimed if they stayed in the United Kingdom. But for that to work, they’ve got to meet all the single market regulations as well. And therefore the customs partnership is in a sense misnamed, because it means [being in the] single market as well as customs union. And therefore we would not, in effect, be leaving the European Union because the single market and the customs union are the twin pillars of the European Union.
Peston asked what Rees-Mogg would do if the cabinet changed its mind on the Prime Minister’s customs partnership after changes are made to the current proposal. Rees-Mogg replied ‘The Prime Minister has been extremely clear in her article in the Sun on Sunday this morning that we would be out of the customs union and out of the single market… I think it would be very odd if the Prime Minister were to write one thing for the Sun on Sunday and for another thing to be going on in Downing Street… I trust the Prime Minister not to do things that are odd. On Greg Clark’s warnings about potential job losses, he added ‘this Project Fear has been so thoroughly discredited that you would have thought it would have come to an end by now’.
Justine Greening – Young voters won’t forgive a bad Brexit deal
The former Education Secretary Justine Greening has added her voice to the fray, outlining her concerns about the outcome of the Brexit negotiations to Sophy Ridge, who returned to her regular slot on Sky News this week. Greening stressed the need for pragmatism and warned that the wrong deal could have political reverberations for the Conservatives for many years to come:
SR: You told my colleague Faisal Islam earlier this week that certain pro-Brexit Conservative MPs are acting like Russia on the UN Security Council – vetoing everything they don’t like. What did you mean by that?
JG: What I mean is that in the end, there’s going to need to be give and take… If we don’t deliver a Conservative Brexit – in other words, it has our values at its heart, as in a strong economy, well managed public finances, opportunity – then actually it won’t be something, I believe that carries the whole country. I represent the youngest constituency in the whole country… and unless you make it work for communities like mine, as those voters get older, and they form a bigger part of the electorate, they will simply demand a change. And I don’t think spending the next ten to 15 years, as a country, continuing to debate and argue about our relationship with our European neighbours, will serve this country’s future well.
Greening also called for some of her fellow Conservatives to be prepared to make compromises on Brexit, saying ‘you’re going to have to crack a few eggs to make an omelette, I’m afraid, on the Brexit situation, and they need to recognise that’. She also said that she ‘was doing just fine’ on the backbenches, but did not rule out running for the role of Mayor of London, telling Ridge ‘I haven’t made my mind up at all on that stuff’.
Ian Lavery – Antisemitism has no place at all in the Labour party
And finally, the Labour party Chairman has vowed to tackle Labour’s problem with anti-Semitism head on. His remarks come after a mixed performance for the party in the local elections this Thursday, which saw Labour perform poorly in many areas with substantial Jewish populations. A notable sore was the failure to take control of Barnet council, the party’s top target in London, where instead they found themselves ceding ground to the Conservatives. Lavery spoke to Ridge about Labour’s next steps:
— Ridge on Sunday (@RidgeOnSunday) May 6, 2018
IL: There will be massive discussions, lots of intense discussions with the Jewish community… My heart goes out to [everyone] in the Jewish communities who have put a lot into the Labour party and yes, many of them councillors that is, may not have been returned within their constituencies or we’ve lost constituencies because of what happened in the row on anti-Semitism. We’ll put this right, we’ve got a new General Secretary, Jennie Formby. Jennie has got this at the top of her political agenda. Anti-Semitism has no role, no place at all in the Labour party, we will root it out from top to bottom and that, as the Chairman of the party, I can categorically tell you.