Theresa May has received a shot in the arm from the local election results. But, as I say in The Sun this morning, she still needs to deal with the whole customs partnership question.
Even after the remarkable rebuff that the ‘new customs partnership’ received from the Brexit inner Cabinet on Wednesday, despite the Prime Minister putting her authority on the line by making clear her support for it, Number 10 won’t give up on the idea. It believes that with a few changes it can be made to work.
Already, ministers are being told that what really matters is getting out of the EU. The case is being made that once Britain is no longer, legally a member of the EU all these problems can be ironed out.
I understand that one minister has even been warned that the whole Brexit project might collapse without a customs partnership. The argument is that there is ‘no deal’ without a customs partnership, which the government views as being key to solving the Irish border question. Without a deal, parliament could turn on Brexit.
But the local elections results show that the Tory vote is becoming more and more Leave dominated; the great John Curtice estimates that 70 percent of Tory voters backed Leave. As one influential Tory warns, this means that if May loses the Brexit Secretary David Davis or Boris Johnson from the Cabinet over the customs partnership ‘and is seen to be selling out Brexit, the Tories will be utterly screwed electorally’.
Another problem with the customs partnership idea is the message that it sends the EU. As one insider tells me, ‘The EU is trying to force us into a false choice between a customs union and no deal—and we’re encouraging that by not being clear enough in our negotiating position.’
Rather than trying to breathe life into the customs partnership idea, May would be better off telling the EU that she wants a free trade deal with sensible customs arrangements. She might find that once she has been clear, the EU is more willing to negotiate.