Theresa May has divided her cabinet into two groups to fight out their differences over Britain’s post-Brexit customs arrangements, intensifying speculation that she is preparing to delay her decision on the issue.
No 10 sources confirmed that the prime minister had formed the working groups, which would report back on her preferred customs partnership model and the maximum-facilitation option at next Tuesday’s meeting of her inner Brexit cabinet.
Her senior ministers are split over how Britain should manage its customs arrangements with the European Union after it leaves the bloc, with the issue threatening to divide the cabinet and the Tory party itself.
One group will focus on the customs partnership plan, under which the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU – until now Downing Street’s favourite option, but dismissed this week by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, as “crazy” and unworkable. The group will include Brexiters Liam Fox and Michael Gove, along with leading remainer David Lidington, the minister for the Cabinet Office.
The Brexiters’ preferred “max-fac” proposal, which relies on technology to minimise border checks, will be studied by remainers Greg Clark, the business secretary, and Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, along with the Brexit secretary, David Davis, a key leave supporter.
Downing Street insiders suggested that each group of ministers had been picked for their relevant departmental responsibilities, rather than to give each proposal a “going over” by opponents.
Neither Johnson nor the chancellor, Philip Hammond, were included in the working groups, with cabinet sources suggesting that they were considered to be the “ultras” on each side, meaning their involvement could have made discussions difficult.
The ministers only have until Tuesday to examine their options, with civil servants’ support, leaving them little time to focus on detail. This has increased the likelihood that each team will conclude both options need yet more work.
Whitehall officials believe they can persuade Brussels that a redrafted version of May’s preferred plan is workable, despite EU negotiators previously describing it as “magical thinking”.
Cabinet sources claimed that few ministers were likely to shift from their established positions on post-Brexit customs arrangements. Fox is understood to be immovable over his opposition to the customs partnership, while friends of Davis have suggested he could quit over the issue.
However, one senior Whitehall insider suggested the move could give the prime minister a “dignified way out” from her customs partnership plan, which has infuriated hard Brexiters who see it as a way of keeping the door open to staying in the customs union.
One cabinet minister told the Guardian: “The prime minister wants to find a way through this that keeps the party together. Her instinct is to stick as closely to the status quo as she can get away with.
“We’ll end up with a fudge on the customs union just so we can say we’ve delivered Brexit. She just wants to kick any decisions down the road for as long as she can.”
A No 10 insider added: “We want to get the right solution. This will help”.
It came as Labour accused the government of “effectively subverting democracy” after an announcement of coming government business made no mention of any major Brexit-related legislation to be debated in the House of Commons.
Announcing the Commons schedule for the next fortnight, Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the house, gave no timings for the return of the EU withdrawal bill from the Lords, or any news on three other key Brexit-connected bills.
The inaction will reinforce the sense of a government gridlocked over the Brexit process, with no agreement in cabinet over a future customs deal with the EU, and speculation ministers might seek to delay decisions still further.
This has prompted speculation that a transition period could be extended, in part to allow more time for a new customs arrangement. On Thursday, Nick Timothy, May’s former joint chief of staff, argued that this could happen, an idea immediately rejected by Downing Street.
The further delays on Brexit legislation reinforces the belief that ministers hope to avoid any Commons defeats by putting off any big decisions by MPs until the government has finalised its strategy for exiting the EU.