May bows to pressure from Tory Brexiteers over customs plan

Theresa May has bowed to pressure from Tory Brexiteers after accepting crucial changes to plans for leaving the European Union.

Eurosceptics tabled amendments to the Government's Customs Bill aimed at imposing strict conditions on the Prime Minister after she produced a plan at Chequers that would keep the UK closely tied to Brussels' rules on goods and food.

A Brexiteer source said the move confirmed that "Chequers is dead on arrival" after the Government accepted all four reforms put forward by Eurosceptics such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith.

Tory Remainer Anna Soubry suggested Mr Rees-Mogg was now "running Britain".

Labour MP Stephen Kinnock accused the PM of "dancing to the tune" of the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteers and claimed that by "capitulating", the Chequers deal is now "dead in the water".

But Mrs May insisted the amendments do not change the blueprint agreed at her country residence.

She told MPs: "He is absolutely wrong in his reference to the agreement that was reached at Chequers, I would not have gone through all the work that I did to ensure that we reached that agreement only to see it changed in some way through these Bills.

"They do not change that Chequers agreement and the minister from the despatch box later today will be making that clear."

Mrs May faced a potential revolt on the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, often referred to as the Customs Bill.

Downing Street insisted the amendments it had accepted were still consistent with the plans in the Chequers agreement but the move may limit the Government's room for manoeuvre in exit talks with the EU.

"We will be accepting these four amendments because we feel they are consistent with the white paper we published last week," a source said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tories (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tories (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Sir Bernard said: "These amendments were only ever about clarifying Government policy, that the UK will not join a customs union with the EU, nor agree to split Northern Ireland from the UK for customs purposes, that we are leaving the EU VAT regime, and any customs arrangement with the EU is not one-sided.

"By accepting these amendments, the Government does no more than confirm our understanding of stated Government policy."

Conservative former Cabinet minister Ken Clarke told MPs that the Government's adoption of ERG amendments was "directly inconsistent with the white paper of a week ago".

Former Cabinet minister Ms Patel, who tabled the amendment calling for reciprocal action on collecting tariffs, said the move was "constructive".

"We have been calling for change, we have been calling for more engagement and the wider arguments to be heard," she said.

But Peter Bone, another signatory to the amendments, said the whole situation was a "shambles" and called for the Chequers plan to be taken off the table.

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(PA Graphics)

He said: "I can't possibly dress it up in any other words than it's an absolute shambles and a self-inflicted shambles by Number 10."

One of the rebel amendments demands that the UK should scrap an offer to collect taxes and duties on behalf of the EU unless the remaining 27 member states pledge to do the same for Britain.

A second forces the Government to commit itself in law not to allow a customs border down the Irish Sea.

The others require the UK to have a separate VAT regime from the EU and force the Prime Minister to table primary legislation if she wishes to keep Britain in the customs union.

Brexiteers had set up a WhatsApp group to co-ordinate voting tactics, organised by ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker, who quit over the Chequers plan.

North Cornwall MP Scott Mann quit as a ministerial aide to the Treasury, with the former postman saying he would not "deliver a watered-down Brexit".

But Mrs May faces further danger on Tuesday, with pro-EU Tories tabling amendments to the Trade Bill, which returns to the Commons.

Brexit
Justine Greening has called for a second referendum (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Former education secretary Justine Greening, who backed Remain, denounced the Chequers plan, saying it offered the "worst of both worlds" and called for a second referendum.

"The only solution is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians, away from the backroom deals, and give it back to the people," she said in an article for The Times.

Negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and future relationship resumed at official level in Brussels on Monday, with new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab due to hold his first face-to-face talks with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday.

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