Michael Gove has said he would not back any delay to the UK leaving the customs union beyond the transition period to allow new border technology to be developed, as Ireland’s foreign minister said any form of infrastructure or technology on the border would be unworkable.
The government has been urged by some MPs, including the former minister Nick Boles, to consider extending the 21-month transition period that will come into force when Britain is due to leave the EU next March to allow more time to develop the technological model.
Gove said: “In delay there lies no plenty … one of the things that we need to do is to crack on,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
However, the environment secretary also expressed scepticism about the merits of an alternative customs proposal, saying the customs partnership model had flaws and needed to be tested.
Theresa May has split members of her warring cabinet into two working groups to thrash out the merits of her two customs proposals.
Under the prime minister’s favoured customs partnership model, the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU and it would go some way to solving the issue with the Northern Irish border. However, it has been denounced by Brexiters who say it is untested and would force Britain into copying the EU’s product standards and regulations.
They prefer the “maximum facilitation” model that relies on technology to minimise border checks, which critics say cannot resolve the Irish border issue and would require lengthy development of sophisticated new technology.
“The critical thing is to meet that deadline. My experience in government reinforces my belief that we need to make sure we deliver things at pace,” Gove said.
He told Marr he had qualms about the customs partnership model, defending Boris Johnson, who described the plan as crazy in an interview earlier this week.
Gove said the cabinet agreed that neither of these two models was absolutely perfect. “With NCP [new customs partnership], as Boris pointed out, because it’s novel, because no model like this exists there have to be significant questions about the deliverability of it on time,” he said. “More than that, the NCP requires the British government to in effect act as the tax collector and very possibly the effective deliverer of regulation for the EU.”
Speaking on the same programme, Ireland’s tánaiste and foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said there had been a clear commitment from May that there would be no border infrastructure. He said any backtracking would mean “a very difficult summer for these negotiations if that happens”.
Coveney said: “If we are expecting to get this concluded by the end of October, is it unreasonable for the Irish government to ask for significant progress on a hugely important issue by the end of June, when it is actually factored into the EU negotiating guidelines that there would be a reassessment by the end of June?”
He said the Irish government was seeking a political solution that allowed for regulatory alignment in a way that prevented a need for border infrastructure.
On Sunday, May attempted to calm tensions with a Facebook article setting out three tests that a new customs arrangement would need to meet. She said no hard border in Northern Ireland, nor a border at the Irish Sea, were acceptable, and that any deal must “protect our precious union and honour the agreements that were reached in the historic Northern Irish peace process”.
The prime minister said agreements must create as little friction as possible for trade – an acknowledgment that some new obstacles may be created. The agreement also must not constrain Britain’s ability to negotiate trade agreements with other countries around the world, May said, comparing it to Labour’s policy of forging a new customs union with the European Union.
May said she wanted to restate her case “amid all the noisy debate and technical discussions”. Johnson has been excluded from the two working groups examining the merits of both options, as has the chancellor, Philip Hammond, who is most in favour of the customs partnership.
Gove will examine the customs partnership alongside Liam Fox and David Lidington, while David Davis will examine the “max fac” model with Karen Bradley and Greg Clark, who have expressed scepticism about that model’s negative effects on business and on its workability at the Northern Irish border.
Though the majority of cabinet ministers in the working groups have been tasked with examining their least-preferred options, sources earlier this week suggested most ministers’ positions had become more entrenched.
Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, called the rift “a farcical situation”.
“Nearly two years after the referendum the cabinet is fighting over two customs options – neither of which frankly are workable, neither of which are acceptable to the EU.”
He said Labour proposed a combination of a comprehensive customs union and a close relationship with the EU single market. “Nobody credible suggests you can achieve no hard border without it,” he told Marr.