Dominic Raab “categorically” ruled out an indefinite customs union to resolve Irish border difficulties in the Brexit talks, amid Tory warnings over the Government’s “gung-ho” approach to no deal.
The Brexit Secretary told MPs that talks with the EU have “intensified” in recent weeks and the two sides are “closing in on workable solutions” to all of the key outstanding issues before urging Brussels to match the UK’s “ambitions” and “pragmatism”.
Labour accused Mr Raab of “pretending that everything is going according to plan” and urged him to “scotch rumours” that the Government is not intending to publish an Irish border backstop proposal by next week, before questioning if an “indefinite UK-wide customs union” would be part of the offer.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer also asked Mr Raab to rule out a “vague or blind Brexit”, adding: “No government has the right to plunge the country into chaos as a result of its own failure.
“Time is running out but there is still time to change course and I urge the Secretary of State to do so.”
Mr Raab, in reply to Sir Keir on the suggestion of an indefinite customs union, said: “No, categorically that is not correct.”
He suggested Sir Keir had almost become the “prince of process” given his questions before accusing Labour’s leadership of having “trashed their promise” at the last election to deliver on Brexit.
Labour MP Christopher Leslie, former shadow chancellor, asked if Mr Raab was ruling out a blind Brexit and “we will have full details of that trade relationship for the future”.
“First of all there’s no question of some kind of blindfolded Brexit,” Mr Raab said, going on to insist the withdrawal agreement would contain substance and detail on the future relationship.
He said: “We want to make sure in the political declaration on the future relationship that we have enough detail and enough of substance so that this House and the country at large can understand the choice of the model of economic and security cooperation that we’re going to be pursuing.”
Conservative backbencher Peter Bone (Wellingborough) suggested a “Chequers +++” proposal is the “way forward” if the Prime Minister’s Brexit blueprint fails.
He said: “Obviously he would like to get a Chequers deal, but as that has already been rejected by the European Union – and I have to say in some ways insulting the Prime Minister in the process – and that he thinks coming out without a deal is sub-optimal, shouldn’t we learn from a former great Labour prime minister about a third way?
“And surely Chequers +++, is that not, if Chequers fails, the way forward?”
Mr Raab said the Government would not “just take the face value, ‘computer says no’ approach” and instead continue to press its case to get a good deal in Brussels.
Conservative former home secretary Amber Rudd later criticised the “gung-ho approach” to no deal as she warned that security matters are not yet in place to keep the UK safe in such an event.
She said: “I remain very concerned about the somewhat gung-ho approach to no deal given that the security matters are not yet in place to ensure that our country remains safe from terrorists, safe from organised crime, and that the EU has the same benefits.”
Mr Raab replied: “I’m confident that in the medium to long-term we would of course resume all of the kinds of cooperation that one would expect, but it’s right to say that in a no deal scenario we could not rely on the EU to continue that in the short term.”
Tory former Brexit minister Steve Baker, of the European Research Group of MPs, argued the UK could secure a free trade arrangement with the EU.
He said: “Time and again customs experts from a range of countries in the EU including Holland and Ireland tell us that a free trade agreement can be made to work across the Irish border using pragmatic arrangements.
“When will the Government take this key that has been handed to them, keeping us in the prison of this negotiation, and admit that we can leave into an FTA basis which will make this a proper independent country able to control its domestic regulations as well as its tariffs so that we can lead the world into a new era of free trade.”
Mr Raab replied that his suggestion was a “shortcut to no deal”.
He replied that “whilst it may be theoretically possible for us to do that, we cannot do it and have a deal with the EU”, adding: “The EU are not offering us Canada, super Canada, an FTA without keeping to the commitment that we made when he was in Government in December to come up with a legally binding backstop, so that is a shortcut to no deal and we’ve always said that we’d be ready if that outcome is forced on us, but the optimum aim here, the optimum objective that we’re working towards is a good deal with the EU. We couldn’t get that if we pursued what he’s suggesting.”
DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said his MPs “would not tolerate” any separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and threatened to withdraw support as they did last December.
He said: “The idea that the sort of proposals that are floating about from the EU side, and indeed some officials on our side in Brussels, are necessary to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland is of course complete rubbish.
“There already is infrastructure on the border and there are already financial, fiscal and other differences because it’s an international border.
“Of course it can be managed.
“He needs to understand that as far as we’re concerned, as the Democratic Unionist Party, we will not tolerate anything that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in terms of customs or single market as we leave the EU.
“We’ve been clear about that from day one.
“It’s why we had the debacle in December. Let’s not repeat that mistake.”