London (AFP) – British political divisions over Brexit resurfaced Tuesday, as the House of Lords handed the government fresh legislative defeats on the issue, hours after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson dismissed as “crazy” one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposals for future EU customs arrangements.
Peers defied her minority Conservative government by voting for three cross-party amendments to key legislation on the process, while Johnson’s outspoken intervention in a newspaper interview exposed continued cabinet infighting over Brexit.
The amendments remove the date of withdrawal from the front of key legislation, allow Britain to continue participating in EU agencies after Brexit and retain the country’s access to the bloc’s single market.
The votes marked the 12th defeat suffered by the government as its flagship European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which sets the legal framework for Brexit, works its way through parliament.
The legislation is now expected to go back within weeks to the House of Commons, which could reject the amendments approved by the unelected Lords.
Angela Smith, the opposition Labour party’s leader in the Lords, said the amendments were “not about stopping Brexit but the fine print of when and how the agreements are concluded”.
“These two amendments are a further opportunity for MPs to consider the finer details of this important legislation,” she added.
Meanwhile earlier Tuesday Johnson, a vociferous supporter of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc, said the future customs plan backed by May would not fulfil many of the promises of Brexit.
“If you have the new customs partnership, you have a crazy system whereby you end up collecting the tariffs on behalf of the EU at the UK frontier,” he told the Daily Mail.
He added: “If the EU decides to impose punitive tariffs on something the UK wants to bring in cheaply there’s nothing you can do.”
Citing the pledges of the Brexit campaign, Johnson said: “That’s not taking back control of your trade policy, it’s not taking back control of your laws, it’s not taking back control of your borders.”
– Decisions, decisions –
Last year, London put forward two options to ease cross-border trade with the EU but, with Brexit looming, has still yet to make a final decision on which to pursue.
May’s preferred option, the customs partnership, was reportedly rejected at a meeting of her senior ministers last week, while Brussels has also condemned it as “magical thinking”.
Downing Street insisted both proposals are still “viable”, even if they are now subject to revision.
“Following last week’s cabinet sub-committee meeting it was agreed that there are unresolved issues in relation to both models and that further work is needed,” May’s spokesman said.
“The prime minister asked officials to take forward that work as a priority.”
A customs partnership model would involve Britain collecting EU tariffs on goods heading into the bloc but charging its own on UK-destined products.
Aside from Johnson, the untested proposal has also been criticised by up to 60 eurosceptic members of May’s Conservative party.
A second option, “maximum facilitation”, would involve using technology to minimise customs checks, but the EU has also cast doubt on its viability.
A decision is not expected for at least another week, but the clock is ticking ahead of a crucial EU summit in June.
There are also concerns that neither option will now be ready for when Britain leaves the bloc’s customs union at the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020.
The prime minister has promised to leave the customs union and single market to allow Britain to forge its own trade policy and control immigration.
But there are fears of the economic impact of such a clean break with its closest trading parter, as well as concerns about the risk to the fragile peace in Northern Ireland of imposing border checks with EU-member Ireland.