David Davis-Theresa May battle ends with new end date in Brexit customs backstop row

David Davis had pushed for a definite end date to post-Brexit customs arrangements. Credit: PA

David Davis will remain as Brexit secretary after talks with Theresa May forced her to concede on a new arrangement for the government's post-Brexit policy.

However he and the prime minister both appear wounded by the row over the end date for the UK to adopt permanent customs arrangements.

Ministers have agreed any “backstop” arrangement to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit should not continue for more than a year after the end of the transition period.

A Government technical note said the UK expected permanent customs arrangements to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston said Mr Davis's future in the role through the Brexit process is still under question.

"Few of Davis’s friends think he will stay for the long term," he said. "They see the compromise with May as no more than a sticking plaster, and say he remains alienated from her Brexit approach."

He said the row appears to have weakened the Brexit secretary along with the prime minister.

"The end date, of December 2021, IS just an expectation. Even Davis’s closest friends concede he blinked. “He caved, for now” said one. So both he and May are wounded by this row. And I am not sure which of them is more damaged - but probably him."

ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand learned the government's backstop paper has been amended after a back-and-forth dispute over post-Brexit timings.

There has been speculation at Westminster that Mr Davis had considered quitting over a dispute regarding backstop proposals on how to deal with the issue of the Northern Ireland border if a preferred withdrawal trade deal is not sorted out with the EU.

But a source close to Mr Davis told ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand that the backstop paper has been amended and now expresses the time limited nature of the government's customs proposal.

Earlier, a source told ITV News that the pair had failed to reach an agreement and that another meeting was taking place.

Mr Davis is understood to have "demanded a clearly defined time limit to the backstop" and stated that "he will walk if he doesn't get it".

Downing Street earlier said Mrs May and Mr Davis had held “constructive” talks and that the prime minister expected him to remain in his role before thrashing out the new deal in yet another meeting.

The government then issued its new note to confirm the updated timings.

"The UK is clear that the temporary customs arrangement, should it be needed, should be time limited, and that it will be only in place until the future customs arrangement can be introduced," it said.

“The UK is clear that the future customs arrangement needs to deliver on the commitments made in relation to Northern Ireland.

“The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU.”

EU negotiator Michel Barnier responded to the amended announcement on Twitter:

The divisions on the backstop initiative had emerged after Mr Davis was believed to be insisting the UK should be able to unilaterally withdraw from any border agreement in order to maintain leverage with Brussels in ongoing negotiations.

When pressed on whether he could remain in post if the backstop deal did not meet his full approval, Mr Davis said on Wednesday: “That’s a question I think for the Prime Minister to be honest.”

Mr Davis made it clear the document would be “decisive” as he said he planned to meet chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier again for Brexit talks next week.

The Cabinet wrangling came as Mrs May faced a battle on a second front as she tried to persuade Tory rebels not to go against her when the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the Commons on Tuesday.

Mrs May is determined to try to stop Tory MPs inflicting humiliating defeats on her by siding with amendments backed by the House of Lords.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said the apparent Cabinet disarray over the customs backstop made a damaging “no deal” Brexit more likely.

Sir Vince told the Press Association: “The idea that we could finish up with no deal at all – which we effectively discarded three months ago – is very much now back on the table as a real possibility.

“We could be in real crisis with no deal, which emphasises the importance of having a vote on the final package with the option of remaining in the European Union.”