Theresa May to Set Out Brexit Options to Her Divided Team, Sources Say

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U.K. Cabinet ministers expect to be locked in a room to study the latest options for a Brexit deal in strict secrecy on Tuesday as Theresa May redoubles efforts to get a deal this month, according to people familiar with the matter.

The prime minister is hosting her most senior team for a discussion on Brexit and the session on Tuesday morning is likely to focus on the vexed question of how to avoid customs checks at the Irish border with the U.K.

British officials have now given up hope of making enough progress this week for a special EU summit to be called for the purpose of signing the divorce deal on Nov. 17, according to one person familiar with the situation. Instead, May’s team is aiming to have a deal ready for the end of the month, but that will require the political will to get over the hurdle of the Irish border question, the person said.

The U.K. is due to leave the EU in under five months, with or without a deal. Both sides have said there will be no withdrawal agreement unless a legally operational backstop guarantee can be found to ensure there are no customs checks at the Irish border, even if the overall trade deal doesn’t solve the issue. If there’s no exit agreement, the 21-month transition phase that businesses want will also fall away.

Before they sit down to discuss the strategy with May, senior ministers are expecting to get the chance to read a new policy paper under tightly controlled conditions, two people familiar with the matter said.

The document could set out the two latest options that have emerged from negotiations in Brussels in recent days on how to resolve the Irish border question, according to one person. These focus on how the U.K. could end any temporary customs union arrangement with the EU. But both options -- which would be enshrined in the legally binding exit deal -- are politically fraught. They are:

  • The U.K. commits to stay in a customs union with the EU which the country could only leave by mutual agreement. This would be seen as a betrayal by pro-Brexit campaigners in May’s Tory party who want the U.K. to be free to set its own trade policy outside the EU’s tariff regime.
  • The U.K. joins a temporary customs union with the bloc with the ability to exit the arrangement unilaterally. While this would deliver what Brexit purists want, it would be at a cost of allowing the EU to keep Northern Ireland inside the bloc’s customs territory, even as mainland Britain goes a separate way. May has previously ruled that out, saying it would destroy the constitutional integrity of the U.K.

May wants to see “quick progress” in the negotiations, her office said, and British officials hope to sign a deal with the EU later this month. But the bloc won’t call the meeting until it’s sure it won’t be another futile summit.

One minister who won’t be present is International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who spoke to May last night from Shanghai.

“The voters have given us an instruction that we are to leave the EU,” he told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday. “It wasn’t a request.”

Fox said his red lines were that all parts of the U.K. had to be treated in the same way, and the government couldn’t agree to any kind of customs union which the U.K. could be kept in “against our will.”

The Sun newspaper reported Tuesday that Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will urge May to face down the EU over the Irish border question.

Meanwhile The Times reported that the EU was preparing to offer a compromise that would give Britain an “independent mechanism” for leaving a customs arrangement with the bloc. And the FT said Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Business Secretary Greg Clark met on Monday to discuss how best to make the economic case for doing a Brexit deal.

Theresa May to Set Out Brexit Options to Her Divided Team, Sources Say

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