Brexit is set to fall down the agenda at a crucial EU summit later this week as the UK government insisted it was sticking to Theresa May’s preferred solution to the Irish border impasse despite Brussels ruling it out.
In talks at Downing Street on Monday, the Prime Minister told EU Council president Donald Tusk that a white paper setting out what the UK wants in its future relations with the EU would come after this week’s meeting.
Cabinet members continue to disagree over post-Brexit customs arrangements between the UK and the EU, with minister set to hold an away day at Chequers to debate the future of trade and the Irish border ahead of the summit.
A spokesman for Mrs May said the Prime Minister believed the EU Council meeting in Brussels “would be an opportunity to discuss a number of important issues, including migration, security and defence”.
Downing Street insisted a plan for a “customs partnership” between the UK and EU remains on the table, despite being dismissed by a senior Cabinet member as “bureaucratic, unwieldy and impractical”.
Andrea Leadsom, the Eurosceptic Leader of the Commons, told the Daily Telegraph that the “customs partnership” model might lead to more “red tape” for businesses.
Brexiteers such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson oppose a customs partnership with the EU, which would see the UK collect tariffs set by the EU customs union on goods entering the country on behalf of the bloc.
Their “max fac” alternative would, rather than scrapping customs checks, use technology to minimise the need for them. Both systems have been dismissed by the EU.
Mrs Leadsom, said: “I think the customs partnership looks quite bureaucratic and unwieldy, it has implications for needing to keep alignment with a lot of EU product regulations and so on.
“That is potentially a less attractive option for businesses themselves.”
Ms Leadsom’s intervention came as government ministers clashed over their responses to business warnings about the impact of Brexit uncertainty.
Defence minister Guto Bebb said warnings from firms including Airbus about the cost of failing to reach a Brexit deal with the EU could not be dismissed, and accused “multi- millionaire” members of the Cabinet of putting their leadership ambitions ahead of business concerns.
On Sunday, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt accused the multinational plane manufacturer, which employs 14,000 people in the UK, of making “completely inappropriate” threats and undermining Mrs May’s negotiating position in Brussels.