James Forsyth

Barnier’s dangerous assumption

Barnier's dangerous assumption
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So what happens now Michel Barnier has laid into Theresa May’s customs plan? That’s the question I try and answer in my Sun column this morning.

Those close to May are trying to downplay Barnier’s criticisms. One Cabinet Minister remarks, ‘It is not a great surprise. He’s been saying no all along’. This Minister’s view is that it is now ‘up to the member states’ what happens next.

But they aren’t likely to come to the rescue of May’s plan: I understand that only a handful of them are interested in it.

Barnier’s real aim, as May has told the Brexit inner Cabinet, is to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU. His calculation is that faced with a choice between a customs union and no deal, Britain will buckle.

The attraction to the EU of keeping the UK in a customs union is that it’ll keep the pattern of trade much the same as it is now. There won’t be any free trade deals that cut the cost of, say, Australian wine and reduce European producer’s share of the UK market.

But Barnier is making a dangerous assumption in thinking that Britain will accept a customs union in the end. May has repeatedly said that she doesn’t want one. In the unlikely event of her changing her mind on this, more ministers would resign from her Cabinet (two are already on the verge of quitting, according to their colleagues) and more letters would go in demanding a vote of no confidence in her. It is hard to imagine her surviving this. Would Brussels really prefer to negotiate with a new Prime Minister?