LONDON — Theresa May’s government is „heading at full steam towards an undeliverable goal” in its attempt to implement her Brexit customs plans by 2020, the former head of the UK civil service has told Business Insider.
„We haven’t sorted out a deliverable version of the ‚end state’ of Brexit because there isn’t a deliverable version,” Lord Kerslake, who headed the civil service between 2012 and 2014 during David Cameron’s coalition government, told BI. „The deliverable version isn’t acceptable to a significant chunk of Conservative MPs.”
Kerslake warned that civil servants were being hamstrung by ministerial indecision and unworkable customs plans.
„The biggest single issue has been the inability of ministers to firm up what the policy is. Talk privately to anyone involved [and] the thing they say is most difficult to handle has been the indecisiveness of the May government. And I think it’s greatly challenging for preparedness,” he said.
Talk privately to anyone involved [and] the thing they say is most difficult to handle has been the indecisiveness of the May government.
Lord Kerslake said the „max-fac” customs plan favoured by Brexiteers, which would see technological solutions remove the need for customs checks at borders, could not be implemented by December 2020, when the transition window is scheduled to end.
„The ‚max-fac’ model that’s being proposed will not work,” he said.
„Even if you back a technological solution to customs, the systems wouldn’t be reliably ready. On that count alone, the transition period isn’t long enough.”
The second proposal under consideration, known as the „customs partnership” model, would see the UK collecting tariffs on behalf of the EU in order to avoid the need for border checks.
Kerslake said it was technically possible if the transition window was extended but said it was complex, messy, and politically unworkable for May because it is so fiercely opposed by pro-Brexit MPs in her own party.
„It would a major problem to deliver [the customs partnership model] in two years. It’s complex, untidy as a model, and even some of the pro-Remain people have doubts about it. But something close to that — whether you call it a customs partnership or a form of customs union — probably could in time be made to work.”
„The problem with it is that it’s not politically acceptable,” he said.
Kerslake, who sits in the House of Lords as a crossbench peer, joins a number of prominent public figures who have warned in recent weeks that the government faces an economic „cliff-edge” unless it seeks to extend the transition window beyond December 2020.
Theresa May is currently facing one of the sternest tests of her premiership as she tries to navigate a path through Brexit negotiations which placates her own Tory colleagues and sticks to the red lines she has set herself.
Those include leaving the current customs union, arranging tariff-free trade with the European single market, and avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland when the former leaves the EU.
The PM is reportedly leaning towards the „max-fac” option following pressure from her colleagues, but experts have warned that the system is untested, and would require infrastructure at the Irish border, something that would be rejected by both the EU and Irish government.
Her so-called ‚Brexit war cabinet’ will today meet for the latest attempt to break the internal government impasse over May’s customs plans. A spokesman for May indicated on Monday that no breakthrough was expected and no deadline set for a final decision on Britain’s negotiating position on customs.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Monday that there had been no significant progress in negotiations with the UK since March.
Could the UK secure an extended transition?
The EU could be receptive to calls for an extended transition. Business Insider reported last week that the EU is „deeply concerned” about the UK’s lack of preparation in its plans to roll over non-EU free trade deals ahead of Brexit.
One senior source in the European Parliament told BI that the European Commission has privately said it would be prepared to include an extended transition period in the final draft of the withdrawal agreement if Britain requested it.
However, that would likely incur the wrath of many Brexiteers who argue that the arrangement represents an attempt to delay or block Brexit.