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Theresa May has warned the British public to prepare for crashing out of the EU with no deal, setting out emergency plans to avoid border meltdown for businesses and travellers.
As hopes of an agreement appeared to fade at home and abroad, the Prime Minister – for the first time – set out detailed “steps to minimise disruption” on Brexit day in 2019. They included plans for huge inland lorry parks to cope with the lengthy new customs checks that will be needed – to avoid ports becoming traffic-choked.
The move came as Ms May admitted she expected the deadlocked negotiations to drag on for another year before any possible breakthrough.
At Westminster, Brexiteer Tories exploited the Prime Minister’s weakness – after last week’s attempted coup – to demand that Chancellor Philip Hammond, and other voices of compromise, be sidelined.
Bernard Jenkin attacked the EU for “refusing to discuss the long term relationship between the EU and the UK”, asking the Prime Minister: “When does she call time?”
Meanwhile, in Brussels, Ms May’s insistence that she would make no further compromises in the talks – she told the EU “the ball’s in their court” – was firmly rebuffed. “There has been, so far, no solution found on step one, which is the divorce proceedings, so the ball is entirely in the UK’s court for the rest to happen,” said Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission’s chief spokesman.
Laying bare the impasse, Brexit Secretary David Davis did not attend the first day of the resumed talks, although he is expected to be in Brussels on Tuesday.
In the Commons, the Prime Minister continued to insist that “real and tangible progress” towards an agreement had been made since her high-profile speech in Florence last month. But she also made clear that new policy papers on trade and customs were intended to show Britain could operate as an “independent trading nation” - even if no trade deal was reached.
She told MPs: "While I believe it is profoundly in all our interests for the negotiations to succeed, it is also our responsibility as a Government to prepare for every eventuality, so that is exactly what we are doing. These white papers also support that work, including setting out steps to minimise disruption for businesses and travellers.”
The planned legislation for post-Brexit customs arrangements set out what would be required under a “no deal” exit.
“Traders that currently trade only with the EU will be subject to customs declarations and customs checks for the first time,” it stated. “The impact is likely to be greatest where goods are travelling in vehicles (eg HGVs, vans, etc).”
And it added: “It would not be desirable to hold vehicles for any length of time at ports to present goods to Customs for export. Therefore, presentation would take place inland as much as possible, and at the port there would be a means to confirm that goods have left the UK.”
A bill would ensure “the UK can charge customs duty on goods (including on goods imported from the EU).”
In her statement, the Prime Minister suggested any Brexit agreement was a long time off and would come right down to the wire. “We are negotiating a deal. We will not have negotiated that deal until, I suspect, close to the end of that period that’s been set aside for it,” she said.
However, Ms May did also lay down a challenge to the Brexiteers in her party, warning that a transition deal – if struck – could require the UK accepting European Court of Justice rulings. It “may be that we will start with the ECJ still governing rules for part of that period,” she said – while suggesting it would be for less than the expected two-years of the transition.
There were signs of a Brexiteer backlash, but Boris Johnson tweeted that he accepted that position – despite making an end to ECJ oversight one of his red lines. “What matters is the end state and our freedom to do things differently and better – and, once again, the PM sets out a powerful vision,” the Foreign Secretary said.
But, insisting “people did not vote for a no-deal hard Brexit”, pro-EU Conservative MP Anna Soubry tweeted: “Negotiations to achieve a deal must continue during transitional period.”
In a hard-hitting response, pointing out it was 16 months since the referendum result, Jeremy Corbyn said: “What on earth has the Government been doing all this time?”
Warning “the reality for this Tory Government is beginning to bite”, he added: “If things don’t improve, the reality may soon begin to bite for the jobs and living standards of the people of this country.”
And Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, said: “With six months of negotiations already gone, the Cabinet is still in open revolt. The upshot is the Government has been unable to draw up a detailed plan to protect jobs and living standards from a hard Brexit.”