David Davis has, I write in The Sun this morning, warned the Brexit inner Cabinet that if Britain is under the backstop at the time of the next election then the Tories will suffer a 1997-style defeat.
The Brexit Secretary argued that this risk meant that the UK had to keep control of the backstop: it had to be able to choose when to end it. But Davis lost this argument with the Prime Minister.
However, Number 10 have assured Brexiteer Cabinet Ministers that the UK will be out from under the backstop by the time of the next election in 2022. I am told that Theresa May is hopeful that the new customs arrangement can be nailed down by the end of 2021 at the latest.
But this seems distinctly over optimistic. HMRC have already warned that it’ll take three to five years to implement new customs arrangements.
Equally, will the EU—which Theresa May privately admits wants to keep the UK in a customs union—rush to sign off on these arrangements?
But if this country is still stuck in the backstop at the time of the next election, Davis is surely right that the Tories will pay a heavy electoral price. Those voters who are backing them to deliver Brexit will feel bitterly let down.
This week, the government came far close than most people realise to collapsing. Both David Davis and Boris Johnson are becoming increasingly angry at Number 10’s approach to Brexit. The two, who have previously not been close, are now coordinating.
One close friend of the Brexit Secretary tells me that ‘the whole thing is shambolic’ and that ‘he would go, if he thought it was the right thing to do’.
But there is pressure on Theresa May from the other side of the Brexit divide too. Philip Hammond has warned the inner Cabinet that the consequences of a ‘car crash’ at the June summit would be huge and ‘would put the economy in danger’. He said that the UK must show the EU that there had been a ‘significant shift’ in our position.
Michel Barnier’s objection to the UK’s backstop proposal, saying it must only apply to Northern Ireland, is a reminder of how difficult doing any kind of deal with the EU will be.
This is why the government should have rigorously prepared for no deal. Its failure to do so has left the UK in a dangerously weak negotiating position.