LONDON — Theresa May needed a compromise. She failed — and now shes in real trouble.
The U.K. prime minister has “a week” to strike a compromise among her top team over Britains future customs relationship with Europe, or face a choice between staying in the customs union after Brexit or leaving the European Union without a deal, both of which will end her career, senior officials in Brussels and London said.
Throughout the two years since Britain voted to leave the European Union, May has avoided binary decisions, seeking instead to weave a compromise path by bringing both Brexiteers and Remainers along with her by picking off one contested issue after another.
Customs, however, forces choices: The U.K. is either outside the customs union and able to strike its own trade deals, or it remains under the auspices of the EU. And if Britain leaves European customs arrangements, Northern Ireland must either join the U.K. on the outside or break from the rest of the country.
Theresa Mays Brexit “war Cabinet” — the committee comprising her most senior ministers — met Wednesday to discuss how to unlock this conundrum, which remains the major obstacle still blocking a Brexit deal.
A compromise plan to break the deadlock could come within days, U.K. aides said.
No final decision was made, according to U.K. government aides and ministers, and no vote taken on Britains two customs proposals, first outlined in a position paper last summer, which were presented to ministers in their latest forms by the U.K.s chief Brexit official Olly Robbins.
Those ministers seeking a closer relationship with the EU favor a so-called hybrid customs partnership, in which the U.K. would continue to manage tariffs on imports destined for the Continent, while Brexiteers back the “max fac” customs plan, where there would be a border but it would be made as smooth as possible with the help of technology and simplified requirements for goods entering Britain from the EU.
Minister concluded “urgent further work” on both proposals is needed, one government official said, so that the Cabinet could “consider revised proposals.”
In Brussels, where negotiations have all but reached a standstill and both the current proposals are considered nonstarters, all sides watched for signs of a fresh offer from the U.K., three senior officials said.
Shipping containers and vehicles wait to be loaded for export at Liverpool Docks | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
A compromise plan to break the deadlock could come within days, U.K. aides said. A second senior government official said there was just one week to resolve the matter, with the clock ticking down to Junes European Council meeting, where both Brussels and Dublin say they expect substantial progress toward a solution to the Irish border issue for Brexit talks to progress at all.
Without a third way, both proposals are effectively “dead,” the second U.K. official said.
The Javid factor
Inside the room, Mays preferred customs partnership proposal was roundly criticized.
In a blow to the prime minister, her new Home Secretary Sajid Javid weighed in on the side of the Brexiteers, alongside Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Brexit Secretary David Davis, according to one aide.
Opponents of the customs partnership claimed a 6-5 split against the model, with May, Chancellor Philip Hammond, Business Secretary Greg Clark, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington supportive. However, another government official denied the scales have tipped, pointing to the presence of Chief Whip Julian Smith, not previously listed as a member of the war Cabinet, who now, the official said, is a member.
Either way, the replacement of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd, a champion of the soft Brexit argument, with Javid looks to have been pivotal. Although he backed Remain in the 2016 referendum, the new home secretary has longstanding Euroskeptic tendencies and when it came to the crunch, he sided with Mays opponents.
A customs union option is viewed favorably by the EU and Ireland, but will not be forthcoming.
A fourth senior government figure familiar with the meeting confirmed the customs partnership model, which prompted threats of rebellion from a powerful group of backbench Tory MPs, was firmly out of favor and now looks unlikely to make it to full Cabinet for consideration.
Aides for ministers on both sides of the split spoke of a “fairly calm” and “business-like” meeting, but one noted there had been “strong opinions” expressed by all sides.
One area of consensus was that the U.K. must not remain in a customs union with the EU — despite growing parliamentary pressure from the Labour Party, the House of Lords, and the small but significant band of rebel Conservative MPs who favor a softer Brexit.
“There was very clear agreement amongst ministers that the U.K. would leave the customs union as the PM set out at Mansion House,” a government official said. “The PM reiterated that staying in the customs union when youre outside the EU means that you have less control than now over our trade policy.”
A customs union option is viewed favorably by the EU and Ireland, but will not be forthcoming, making it likely that even if May can scramble some kind of compromise, it will do little to break the deadlock in Brussels.