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Leading Tory Brexiters deny plot to oust May over Chequers deal

The Guardian logo The Guardian 12/09/2018 Dan Sabbagh and Lisa O'Carroll
David Davis speaks during the launch of the ERG position paper. © Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA David Davis speaks during the launch of the ERG position paper. David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted they were not seeking to oust Theresa May as they demanded that the prime minister abandon her Chequers proposals and adopt their alternative plan to maintain “a free-flowing” border with Ireland.

The rebel Conservatives unveiled a position paper on the Irish border from the hard Brexit European Research Group (ERG), but were forced to downplay the idea of a leadership challenge aired by some ERG members in a meeting on Tuesday night.

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Rees-Mogg said the goal of the ERG was not to challenge May but to force her to ditch the Chequers plan. “I have long said and repeated that policy needs to be changed, but I’m supporting the person,” he said on Wednesday. May was a “fantastic and dutiful” prime minister and she “has my support”, he added. 

Video: May says Europe will never be 'ordinary third party' to UK (ITN News)

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Speaking immediately after, Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said: “I think we have a very good prime minister and like Jacob I disagree with her on one issue, this issue,” as the pair tried to switch the agenda away from leadership speculation towards their counter proposals to No’s 10 Chequers plan.

Their comments came after a group of about 50 ERG members – but not including Davis or Rees-Mogg – attended an evening meeting at which the idea of challenging May was openly discussed among the MPs hostile to her Chequers proposals.

Senior ERG members were frustrated that leaks from the previous night were overshadowing the Irish paper, a carefully written document arguing that existing technology and arrangements could be expanded to prevent the return of a physical border in Northern Ireland.

However, to achieve that the ERG conceded that the UK would have to sign up to “equivalence of UK and EU regulations” for food products and standards in order to keep the border open. That is intended to be in opposition to May’s Chequers plan, which would see the UK sign up to “a common rulebook” for food and goods, which ERG supporters complain would leave Britain a “rule taker” from Brussels.

A dozen Tory backbenchers attended the launch of the paper at the Royal United Services Institute in Westminster, including two former Northern Ireland secretaries, Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson, and the influential ERG organiser Steve Baker. But there was no sign of Boris Johnson, who had turned up to a similar event the day before.

Few believe that the ERG, which claims to have a maximum strength of 80 MPs, has the numbers to win a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership if one were called. To win May would need to secure the backing of 158 MPs – half the Conservative parliamentary party – meaning the principal emphasis is on challenging Chequers as exit negotiations with the European Union reach their critical phase.

Brexit campaigner Jacob Rees-Mogg © Reuters Brexit campaigner Jacob Rees-Mogg Who dislikes the Chequers agreement and why?

Noisiest in their opposition are Tory Brexiters, not least David Davis and Boris Johnson, both of whom quit the cabinet in protest. They argue that the promise to maintain a common rulebook for goods and other continued alignment will mean a post-Brexit UK is tied to the EU without having a say on future rules, rather than being a free-trading independent nation.

Labour has also disparaged the proposal, expressing deep scepticism about the so-called facilitated customs arrangement system.

What about the EU?

Brussels has sought to stay positive, but has deep concerns about elements of the plan viewed as overly pick-and-mix, and thus potentially incompatible with EU principles.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, says he opposes both the customs plan and the idea of alignment for goods. He also makes plain his contention that the Chequers plan contains no workable idea for the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.

But at the same time the EU has been careful to not entirely dismiss the proposals, raising the possibility it could accept some adapted version.

Who supports the agreement?

Officially, May and her cabinet, though even here the backing can seem lukewarm at times. Asked about Chequers, the home secretary, Sajid Javid, said it was the government’s plan “right now”, indicating alternative ideas could be considered.

Is it doomed?

Even May’s allies concede it will be a hugely difficult task to get the plan through parliament. Damian Green, the PM’s close friend and former de fact deputy, described the process as “walking a narrow path with people chucking rocks at us from both sides”.

On the remain side of the Conservatives, the former education secretary Justine Greening called the Chequers plan “more unpopular than the poll tax”, saying May should start again from scratch.

If anything can save the plan – and it’s an outside shot – it will be a combination of the hugely tight timetable and the fact that, as yet, no one else has yet produced a plan with a better chance of being accepted by parliament.

Video: David Davis says preference is a 'free trade plus agreement' (ITN News)

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What happens next?

On 20 September, an informal gathering in Salzburg, Austria, will provide a snapshot of current EU thinking. Then, 10 days later, the Conservative conference could show the Chequers plan is holed below the waterline.

If it survives these tests, the proposals will then reach the crucial EU summit Brussels on 18 October, with something final needed, at the very latest, in the next two months. PETER WALKER

Downing Street said “it did not have a message” to MPs plotting to remove May, but added: “We have a commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland and we don’t believe the answer is to move the border. People want to live their lives as they do now and that’s what the Chequers proposal does.”

Whitehall sources said the ERG paper was essentially the same as the “maximum facilitation” customs proposal pushed by Davis and other Brexiters in the cabinet that has previously been emphatically rejected by the EU.

The report accuses the EU of ignoring unionist opinion in Northern Ireland in negotiations over the Irish border. “It is now accepted that the European commission has made a major error in taking advice on matters relating to the island of Ireland almost solely from Dublin. It must seek to learn more from respected voices in Northern Ireland,” the report says.

The deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, Nigel Dodds, praised the ERG paper, tweeting:

Earlier the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the EU would always show “loyalty and solidarity” with the Republic of Ireland on the issue of its border with Northern Ireland. Delivering his state of the union speech, Juncker said: “We will defend all the elements of the Good Friday agreement. It is Brexit that risks making the border more visible in Northern Ireland. It is not the European Union.”

The ERG paper says larger companies could use “trusted trader” schemes to clear their goods for export and import, and other declarations could be incorporated into the existing system used for VAT returns.

“The EU will be able to maintain the integrity of its internal market without erecting a hard border along its border with Northern Ireland,” it says. “At the same time, the United Kingdom will be able to develop a fully independent trade policy rather than remaining a rule-taker. The one element of ‘alignment’ necessary is the maintenance of the current common biosecurity zone covering the island of Ireland, and this is not contentious.

“The necessary procedures described can all be implemented within the existing legal and operational frameworks of the EU and the UK, based on the mutual trust on which regular trade depends.

“Rational, pragmatic approaches can ensure that the vital trade across the border is maintained. At the same time, this allows the United Kingdom to conduct an independent trade policy without threatening the integrity of the EU single market.”

Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab and European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, leave after a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Vidal © Reuters Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab and European Union's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, leave after a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium August 31, 2018. REUTERS/Eric Vidal The group said its proposals could be delivered without the need for any new infrastructure at the border and without weakening north-south cooperation. “There is nothing which would reduce our commitment to the Belfast agreement or which might jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland,” it said.

Seamus Leheny, of the Freight Transport Association in Northern Ireland, welcomed the creation of a common biosecurity zone, saying “it does have merit and makes logistical sense”, but said it relied on checks being done when “wheels aren’t turning on lorries” moving the freight, either during shipping or at ports.

Niall MacSuibhne, a former senior Irish Revenue official, praised the ERG for going into detail on VAT, a complex issue but one that could sow the seeds of a huge black economy in the border.

If the chancellor, Phillip Hammond, drops VAT in Northern Ireland “smuggling will become every day occurance”, said MacSuibhne, citing the example of a builder in Donegal who goes across the border to buy all his supplies.

“The problem is when people buy goods without records, this just leads to a bigger and bigger black economy.

“At least the ERG are thinking about this issue but they have ignored all these small traders and householders and assume that everyone is a legitimate business.”

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