Theresa May has abandoned her pledge that a deal to keep the UK in the EU customs territory must be “time-limited”, paving the way for likely cabinet resignations.
The prime minister’s spokeswoman refused – four times – to say the “backstop” agreement, to avoid a hard border in Ireland, would have a strict end date, the assurance she set out four months ago.
Instead, No 10 said only that it must be “temporary”, a much looser word that – pro-Brexit ministers fear – will leave the UK locked into an effective customs union for many years to come.
The Independent revealed today that Andrea Leadsom, the Commons leader, is prepared to resign if the compromise is made, with other cabinet ministers believed to be ready to follow her.
Asked if the reworked customs proposals, being negotiated in Brussels, would have “an end date”, Ms May’s spokeswoman said only that it “would be temporary”.
She attempted to head off a backlash by adding: “The prime minister would never agree to a deal which could trap the UK in a backstop permanently.”
However, the U-turn was quickly attacked by Steve Baker, a leading Brexiteer Tory, who said it risked “effectively committing the UK to membership of the single market and customs union”.
“That won’t wash. The British people voted to take back control over money, laws borders and trade,” the former Brexit minister said.
At a briefing for journalists, the spokeswoman insisted the UK would insist that the backstop “needs to” end no later than December 2021.
However, without a legal requirement for that to happen, in the Brexit withdrawal deal, that would depend on as-yet unproven technology providing a solution.
Asked if Ms May feared cabinet walkouts, the spokesman said: “The prime minister is focused on getting the best possible deal and that’s what she is working to deliver.
And she insisted: “Our position is that this future economic relationship needs to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.”
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