In an extraordinary day of drama at Westminster, the Prime Minister was forced to accept a demand from EU Exit Secretary David Davis that her fallback customs arrangements – proposed as part of the effort to prevent a Northern Ireland “hard border” after Brexit – will not last beyond December 2021.
She had resisted setting a time limit but eventually conceded to his demand after he let it be known he was ready to plunge the Brussels negotiations into chaos by resigning.
Putting a brave face on the climbdown last night, Mrs May insisted the compromise will kick-start the stalled Brexit talks.
In a letter to Tory MPs, she wrote: “This is a necessary part of the negotiations, through which we will deliver a Brexit that takes back control while establishing a new deep and special partnership with the EU.”
She added: “This backstop arrangement is in no way the Government’s intended or desired future customs arrangement, and in any case its temporary nature means it cannot be.
“It is the Government’s settled policy that in our future relationship the UK will be out of the customs union.”
Mr Davis was furious about the Prime Minister’s initial refusal to set a time limit on the backstop plan because of fears it could tie the UK to Brussels indefinitely.
After a string of tense one-to-one meetings with Mr Davis and other leading Brexiteer ministers, including Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, Mrs May backed down.
An official Government technical note was amended minutes before publication to read: “The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.”
The Cabinet agreement after weeks of wrangling allows Mr Davis to head back to Brussels next week to resume talks with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier.
A Government spokeswoman said: “We now have a document which is agreed Government policy.
The PM has rightly held many discussions with Cabinet ministers on this.” But the spokeswoman refused to rule out the EU divorce fee – currently set at around £39billion – being increased to cover the backstop period. “There’s no legal requirement to keep paying into the EU budget after the implementation period but we must obviously now discuss our backstop proposals together with the EU,” she said.
Mrs May’s last-ditch compromise has saved the Government from a crisis that many MPs feared could have forced her out of Downing Street.
After the deal was reached, a source close to Mr Davis said: “Obviously there’s been a back and forth on this paper, as there always is whenever the Government publishes anything.
The backstop paper has been amended and now expresses, in much more detail, the time limited nature of our proposal.”
Brexit-supporting Tory MPs were underwhelmed by the deal last night and many insisted there had been no need for a backstop plan in the first place.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Eurosceptic backbench European Research Group, said of the Government’s technical note: “It is a negotiating document.”
Brexit-backing Tory MP Peter Bone said a backstop was not necessary and was in danger of becoming a “first stop”.
He added: “If the EU knows it can get away with this, it won’t negotiate in good faith. Why would a few more months be needed? It is to me unacceptable.”
Mr Bone also suggested the Government should get ready to walk away from the talks because of the EU’s intransigence over the Northern Ireland border and a string of other issues.
“We have probably got to the stage where we say a deal on World Trade Organisation rules is much better than anything we can possibly get,” he said.
“It may be time to say to the EU we are not negotiating with you any more.” EU chiefs also gave the proposals a cool reception.
Mr Barnier said: “I welcome publication of the UK proposal on customs aspects of the Irish Republic/Northern Ireland backstop.
We will examine it with three questions.
Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the single market and customs union? Is it an all-weather backstop?” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, said it was difficult to see how the UK proposal would deliver a workable solution.
He added: “A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop, unless the definitive arrangement is the same as the backstop.”
Downing Street officials insist the backstop plan is unlikely to come into force because they are confident new border arrangements using digital technology will be ready in time.
The Prime Minister’s parliamentary allies in the Democratic Unionist Party last night signalled their support.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds described the plan as positive and a step forward.
Allies of the Prime Minister and Mr Davis exchanged barbs last night over who had gained most in the stand-off.
A source close to the Brexit Secretary described the deal as a “DD win”. But an ally of Mrs May said that view was “simply delusional”. International Trade Secretary Dr Fox welcomed the compromise last night. “This was preferable to what the EU suggested,” he said.
But John Longworth, co-chairman of Leave Means Leave, said: “After two wasted years of inept negotiating, the Prime Minister is continuing to be obsessed with the damage limitation mantra of the Remainers and to lead the country into the trap set by the Brussels bully boys.”
June 8th, 2018: Express