May Had Secret Brexit Showdown With Tories Who Want Clean Break

(Bloomberg) -- Brexit-backing Conservatives held private talks with Theresa May to demand that the U.K. prime minister sticks to her plan for a clean break with the European Union.

At the meeting, which took place in the prime minister’s office on Tuesday, May reassured euroskeptics she will deliver the kind of Brexit they want, according to two people familiar with the conversation. The gathering was convened amid reports that May might be getting ready to buckle on her red line to quit the customs union.

The assurances, according to the people speaking on condition of anonymity, seem to have satisfied Tories who have the power to potentially trigger a leadership challenge and were concerned she was softening her Brexit position.

May has no majority in the House of Commons and faces some tough parliamentary arithmetic to stick to her plan to pull out of the customs union: both the main opposition Labour Party and some pro-EU Tories support close ties to the bloc. On Wednesday, she suffered her sixth defeat on her flagship Brexit legislation in a sign that lawmakers are increasingly shaping her vision.

The customs union issue could come to a head in a crunch vote next month, with potential Tory rebels threatening to defeat May and force her to accept staying in the EU’s trade regime after all.

But May told the delegation of euroskeptics that she would take Britain out of the single market and the arrangement that sets a common tariff on imported goods. This will allow the U.K. to control immigration and strike free trade deals on its own terms.

May is now facing pressure to go a step further and ditch what is said to be her favored option for a new customs and tariff regime. The so-called “customs partnership” plan would involve the U.K. collecting tariffs on the EU’s behalf and then refunding companies whose goods are destined for end-users who are not based in countries operating the bloc’s tariffs.

The plan is far too complicated and won’t work, according to Tory critics, who are said to include Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Trade Secretary Liam Fox. Brexit supporters fear it will tie the U.K. too closely to the EU’s tariff regime. It’s also been rejected by the EU.

May’s Brexit “war cabinet” of senior ministers met on Wednesday but did not discuss customs plans in detail, despite expectations that the argument would be aired. Instead, the question of customs arrangements will be on the agenda for next Wednesday’s meeting of May’s most senior Brexit team, people familiar with the matter said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.