A 'longer fudge' on customs union?

Theresa May Image copyright EPA

I can't put it off any longer - it is now time, again, for another post about the customs union.

If you have decided to ignore all of this until there is a firm decision from the government, I quite understand.

But the situation is, in the words of one former minister, maybe heading towards "boiling point".

So here goes - and I promise there is something more fun at the end of this piece too.

Remember the "backstop"? The controversial promise that was made as part of the December agreement, then dressed up like a Christmas tree (from the British point of view) by the EU Commission earlier this spring?

Well, ongoing discussions about making that work include, as the Irish PM has said, the idea of a "shared customs territory".

That was talked about at the Brexit committee this week in Westminster, and that could mean replicating or extending parts of the current customs arrangements for the whole of the UK.

The PM is an avowed Unionist and relies on support from the DUP, who would never accept different rules for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The "backstop" is only there though if the government and Brussels can't make any of the other ideas work.

So, it is not the case that this week cabinet ministers have definitively signed up to a deal that will see the UK in the same kind of customs union forever.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption An extension could be forced on reluctant Brexiteers

No 10 is strikingly adamant that their goal is making one of their plans work so that the backstop is not required and, importantly, the PM can avoid a huge hit to her political credibility.

She has said more times than I can remember that the UK is leaving the customs union and won't be in "a" customs union.

For her to therefore argue overtly for an extension to the customs union is deeply unpalatable - and senior government figures suggest it just can't happen.

However, given the political difficulties of reaching a compromise, as we've discussed for the last few weeks, it is the view of at least four cabinet ministers that extending the existing customs arrangements might be the only thing that breaks the deadlock.

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Media captionNewsnight: How do we solve the Brexit border problem?

Indeed, Business Secretary Greg Clark said at the weekend that elements of the new arrangements might take longer to bring in.

The UK position may, therefore, end up being - in the words of one cabinet minister - "a longer fudge".

It's not what No 10 wants, nor what Brexiteers want, but it just might be forced on both of them by the failure to agree anything else - or perhaps by parliament in the coming months.

PS: Word reaches me that much of this could have been avoided....

How? If the PM had managed to get the customs partnership plan through her Brexit committee last week, the government would have been able to put forward an agreed position already.

As you know, while there wasn't a vote, six ministers backed the "max fac" arrangement, while five argued for "NCP".

Because of that, it ended with the declaration that both needed more work and discussion, hence why we are in this purgatory.

The Remainer Home Secretary Amber Rudd had just resigned, leaving the place on the committee for Sajid Javid.

He came down for the Brexiteer's preferred "max fac" option, denying the PM her way.

Several sources have told me that there was a plan to put Justice Secretary David Gauke on the committee too.

He would have been almost certain to back the PM's preferred partnership model.

So what? Well, that would have made the committee meeting a score draw, giving the prime minister the casting vote.

Sources suggest, mischievously, that in the confusion of the resignation of Ms Rudd, the government simply forgot about the plan to install Mr Gauke - which could have avoided some of this headache.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Was Justice Minister David Gauke forgotten?

Senior figures concede there has been discussion about putting him on there, which would change the balance on this important committee.

It is, after all, not a ridiculous idea for the minister in charge of the legal system to have a role.

But it's suggested it can't happen now, because the timing would be considered too transparent.

No one will officially get into discussion about the idea, whether it was forgotten - in the manner of the reshuffle post it falling down the back of the sofa - or ever, very serious.

But is it conceivable that some of the shenanigans over customs are the product of a brain fade?

One Tory insider suggests, "nothing would surprise me".

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