A British prime minister’s cabinet is supposed to be governed by the principle of collective responsibility. That rule has pretty much broken down when it comes to Theresa May’s plans over the customs partnership.
On Sunday, Greg Clark, the business secretary, weighed in fully behind Mrs May’s idea after the setback it received at a cabinet committee last week.
Mr Clark said the customs partnership would allow the UK to maintain frictionless borders while also doing trade deals across the world.
He said it would help companies such as Toyota retain “just in time” production methods, because it would remove the need for a customs border between the UK and suppliers in the EU.
Today, however, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, is on the attack. He condemned Mrs May’s customs partnership as a “crazy system” that would leave the UK “locked in the tractor beam of Brussels”.
Mr Johnson and his fellow Brexiters insist that the UK needs instead to go for maximum facilitation (the use of technology and trusted trader schemes to smooth the customs border). Here Mr Johnson is backed by an alliance of the 60 arch Brexiters in the European Research Group, and by the Daily Mail.
How will Mrs May respond? The PM is clearly in a bind. But there are two reasons to suspect that she will press ahead with a reworked version of the customs partnership plan and try to get her cabinet to back it.
First, the PM has little choice. If she were to climb down, she could well lose an impending vote in the Commons in which pro-European MPs are calling for Britain to stay permanently in a customs union.
Some commentators think Mrs May could survive in office if she lost that vote, declaring that she would have to abide by the will of parliament and move on. Others say defeat on the floor of the Commons would be a personal and political humiliation of the first order that could not be overcome.
Second, Mrs May might press ahead with a customs partnership if she >believes Mr Johnson’s diatribe is bluster.
Hard Brexiters get loud and aggressive when they are losing a key fight on Brexit. But they know, too, that they cannot bring Mrs May down, for fear of derailing Brexit altogether. So their hands are tied.
Even so, we should not be under any illusions over how high the stakes are in this key moment of the Brexit saga. Mr Johnson and his allies genuinely believe the customs partnership plan is a trap aimed at keeping the UK in a customs union for good.
As one person briefed on the Brexit negotiations puts it:
“Johnson and Co fear that Mrs May is aiming to sucker them into a temporary customs union on industrial goods, coupled with permanent regulatory alignment and delivered as close to the single market as possible. All this, whilst constantly saying that the glorious customs partnership is just over the horizon, when, in reality, it is never going to happen.”
The hard Brexiters think that this is now the game being played by chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins and the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood. They may be right.