U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May when she was still the Home Secretary. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

May Says `Trust Me to Deliver' Brexit Even as Cabinet Split

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(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May called for unity over Brexit, following a week in which Cabinet tensions spilled over and her plan for Britain’s trading relationship with the European Union was labeled “crazy” by a key party member.

“You can trust me to deliver,” May wrote in the Sunday Times newspaper. “The path I am setting out is the path to deliver the Brexit people voted for,” she said, adding, “I will not let you down.”

Less than a year until the U.K. leaves the EU, May’s government still can’t agree what to seek in the exit negotiations. The resignation of a key ally left May outnumbered in her inner “war cabinet” over her proposal for a close customs relationship with the bloc, while the Sunday Telegraph reported that at least 12 ministers -- of 28 who sit in Cabinet with May -- are set to oppose her plan.

May last week ordered her ministers to take responsibility for resolving the Brexit customs dilemma themselves, splitting her inner Brexit Cabinet into two working groups to iron out their differences. Both include ministers from the pro- and anti-Brexit factions, but two of the most hardline on each side -- Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, responsible for the “crazy” barb, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond -- aren’t included.

Theresa the Delayer: May’s Secret to Surviving Brexit

There are two options under consideration. May’s preferred plan would see the U.K. mirror the EU’s customs regime, collecting EU tariffs and reimbursing businesses if U.K. tariffs are lower. A second plan, known as “maximum facilitation” or Max Fac, would set up a looser relationship between the two trading partners and use technology to minimize disruption and border checks.

Brexit-backers prefer the second version, while the EU is now starting to engage with May’s proposal -- a plan it had previously branded unworkable.

As well as trade, the decision is critical to how May plans to meet her pledge to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit. Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show” that the premier’s customs partnership idea could be the basis of negotiation between the two sides. He dismissed the option to rely on technology.

‘Won’t Work’

“We just simply think it won’t work,” Coveney said. “The only way we can find a solution here that means that we have a fully seamless border -- with no physical infrastructure and no checks and controls -- is to maintain alignment in terms of rules and regulations on both sides of the border.”

Meanwhile, May has put off sending a key piece of Brexit legislation to the House of Commons after peers repeatedly defeated the government as it passed through the upper House of Lords.

May Suffers Series of Brexit Defeats as Lords Demand EEA Option

The Commons debates, when they come, are likely to expose her predicament even further -- she’s stuck between a likely majority for a customs union, and the more than 60 lawmakers in her Conservative Party threatening to derail her government if she goes for one.

The main opposition Labour Party is also under pressure over how close to stay to the EU after Brexit. Leader Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong euroskeptic, has so far resisted calls to try to keep Britain in the bloc’s single market, arguing that its rules would prevent him from fulfilling policy pledges including taking some businesses into state ownership.

Labour Shift?

But two senior Labour lawmakers, including one member of the shadow cabinet, have said privately they believed there was room for Corbyn’s position to shift. They pointed out he has already moved, accepting in February that Britain should seek a customs union with the EU.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, told the BBC on Sunday that the party wants both a “comprehensive customs union” and a “strong single-market relationship that hardwires the benefits of the single market into the future agreement” with the EU.

For Prime Minister May, time is running out to heal the divisions in Cabinet. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a leading pro-Brexit campaigner, said her customs partnership idea had “flaws,” though he also acknowledged that neither plan was perfect. Significantly, he said colleagues should trust May on Brexit.

Writing in the Times, the premier hinted that concessions would be needed.

“Of course, the details are incredibly complex and, as in any negotiation, there will have to be compromises,” May wrote. “But if we stick to the task we will seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a stronger, fairer Britain that is respected around the world and confident and united at home.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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