The local election period was meant to be an armed truce in the internal Tory war on Brexit but some pro-Leave MPs couldn’t quite hold their fire.
They were incensed by talk of a drift in Downing Street towards something that looks and sounds a lot like the existing Customs Union.
Some Brexiteers were amongst those who pointed happily at the government’s proposed solutions to the Northern Ireland border issue and the desire for frictionless trade with the EU. and as proof that solutions could be found to the big Brexit challenges.
Not all Brexiteers joined that chorus though and in recent months there’s been mounting suspicion that the “mirroring” plan for the UK to collect EU tariffs at its own border and refund if the trade doesn’t feed through to the EU is part of an anti-Brexit plot. They think it’s a device for civil servants and government ministers who want to delay the departure from the Customs Union beyond the end of the transition and maybe forever. Its technical challenges would never be overcome, the argument runs, and as it remained forever “in development,” Britain would remain in the Customs Union.
What added to some Brexiteers breaking their own ceasefire this weekend was a fear that some in the government are only too happy to contemplate a defeat at the hands of Tory rebels and opposition parties over the Customs Union when the Commons votes on critical amendments. They suspect senior officials have persuaded Theresa May that a drastic change to customs arrangements would be a disaster and while she continues to repeat commitments to coming out of the Customs Union she has her fingers, metaphorically, crossed behind her back.
Some Brexiteers feel they have already compromised enough on the transition arrangements and this group is getting ready to kick off the other side of the local elections on May 3rd. They’ve been asking No. 10 to commit to making any vote on the Customs Union “a confidence vote”. Some say they’ve had assurances that is what No. 10 has said it will do. No. 10 is aware that the only way that threat could mean anything under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is for Theresa May personally threaten to quit her job after a defeat in the Commons. Not surprisingly No. 10 is pushing back on the story.
The message from some Brexiteers is that Mrs May shouldn’t assume their support in all circumstances. They have the numbers to bring down the government, the argument runs, and they would do just that if they thought Brexit was being watered down beyond recognition. Wednesday sees the Cabinet Brexit Committee meet and is being billed as a moment. Thursday sees an unwhipped vote on a Customs Union motion and will see some “blue on blue” action in the debate plus a lot of attention on how many pro-Remain Tory MPs vote with the opposition parties in a show of strength. But the real spats are still expected the other side of the May local elections.