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Is the cabinet's customs row the most fatuous in history?

The cabinet, which has significantly changed since this meeting in 2016, has been debating the Government's position on a post-Brexit customs union. Credit: PA

The row taking place in the cabinet over our post-Brexit customs arrangement with the EU increasingly looks like displacement activity of a very high order.

Because all the noises from Brussels - from the officials and politicians with whom I natter - are that whichever of the two competing plans the prime minister ultimately adopts would be rejected by them.

As I understand it, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier looks at the dense technical and philosophical arguments rending ministers asunder - about whether it would be practical and appropriate for the UK to collect the EU's tariffs or how far technology can create the illusion of borderless trade - and shakes his weary head at what he sees at the pointlessness of it all.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, is hoping for progress with Brexit. Credit: PA

And all the noises from the palace of Westminster are that whether Theresa May ultimately opts for Max Fac or NCP - as the two proposals are styled - neither would receive assent from MPs and Lords.

So why on earth are ministers expending so much time, emotion and political capital arguing over ideas that may be compelling to them, but are less likely to be adopted than a plan to ration thorny branches in a self-flagellating monastic order?

Possibly for two reasons.

First the fatuous, self-harming, cabinet negotiations demonstrate to Brexiters, who represent a majority both of Tory members and Tory voters (they are who put May and the Tories in office, after all) that the PM is really doing her best to deliver a hard clean Brexit.

Theresa May wants a hard Brexit. Credit: PA

And if in the end she fails, well she will be seen to have tried her best, but to have been stymied by those bloomin' eurocrats and backbench MPs, who - as everyone knows - are curs and traitors.

Second, focussing on customs is a wonderful distraction from the vastly more controversial questions - which divide MPs even more than the customs ideas - of how far to adopt EU standards and regulations for British goods, to facilitate frictionless trade with the European single market, and whether to allow any role for the European Court of Justice in assessing whether the UK is adhering to those EU standards.

Here is the elephant in the room: the prime minister talks the talk of wanting a soft Brexit while walking the walk of a hard one.

Which in recent weeks and months has been politically astute. But can't be sustained beyond the summer - when a schema has to be adopted by the EU for the UK's future relationship with it.

Theresa May has faced opposition in the commons on most issues relating to Brexit.

In the end, I suspect - perhaps counter-intuitively - that May's talk will trump the walk, in that parliament will ultimately force her to go for a plan that barks and quacks like membership of the customs union and the EU's single market.

She'll get there with a public display of regret. And we'll hear, again, the familiar wailing of Brexiters that they've been betrayed.

But let us never forget that she and the majority of parliamentarians are Remainers. And in the end they'll do what Remainers do.