Major Foresees Failure in May's Quest for Brexit Trade Solution

(Bloomberg) -- Former U.K. Prime Minister John Major said Theresa May’s quest for a post-Brexit alternative to the European Union’s Customs Union that provides for frictionless trade is one that’s doomed to fail.

Major -- who led the country from 1990 to 1997 -- said the customs union is “crucial to trade” in a speech Thursday at the Irish Embassy in London. Alluding to two options being shuffled by the incumbent’s divided cabinet, he said that there’s “no sensible alternative” to the customs union if the goal is to avoid a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and facilitate trade with the EU after Brexit.

“No doubt many goods can be cleared in some invisible, frictionless way -- as yet unidentified -- but not all,” Major said, his tone laced with irony. “Ingenious options – well-meaning options – have been proposed but rejected by Cabinet sub-Committees, with the limp promise that further ideas will be sought. No doubt the search will intensify -- but I doubt it will be successful.”

The swipe from a predecessor in her own Conservative Party comes at a bad time for May’s efforts to keep her Brexit plans on track. Her Brexit war cabinet is split over two options to solve the customs dilemma -- neither of which the EU has embraced, and she faces rebellious lawmakers in both the House of Lords and House of Commons who are trying to keep Britain in the Customs Union.

While Major’s interventions in the Brexit debate are infrequent, they provide succor to those rebels. In February, he said voters should have the right to reconsider Brexit once the terms of departure are known. He also gave new vigor to pro-Europeans in his party by encouraging lawmakers to vote with their conscience, saying that “they must make the decision whether to go for their party ticket or their constituents’ well-being.”

Since then, the Lords have rebelled on May’s key piece of Brexit legislation 14 times. Later this month, the bill returns to the House of Commons where their elected lawmakers will have their turn to rebel or not.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.