LONDON — Theresa May's plans to form a "customs partnership" with the EU after Brexit are "crazy," and must be ditched, the foreign secretary has said in the clearest public attack yet on the prime minister's authority.
Boris Johnson told the Daily Mail that May was attempting to create a "crazy system" which would break the key Brexit campaign pledge to "take back control" of Britain's trading system from the EU.
"If you have the new customs partnership, you have a crazy system whereby you end up collecting the tariffs on behalf of the EU at the U.K. frontier," Johnson told the Mail.
"If the EU decides to impose punitive tariffs on something the U.K. wants to bring in cheaply, there’s nothing you can do. That’s not taking back control of your trade policy, it’s not taking back control of your laws, it’s not taking back control of your borders and it’s actually not taking back control of your money either, because tariffs would get paid centrally back to Brussels.
He added: "It's totally untried and would make it very, very difficult to do free trade deals."
Johnson's comments are privately backed by other senior Brexiteers in May's Cabinet, including the Brexit secretary David Davis and the Environment Secretary Michael Gove. However, they are at complete odds with the prime minister and her team who are still pushing for her plans to develop a 'customs partnership' with the EU.
Johnson's preferred alternative of creating a new 'maximum facilitation' system would involve a new 'trusted trader' system, but would also produce border checks in Northern Ireland, which politicians from all side have warned would be a serious risk to the peace process in the province.
Both options would take up to five years to implement and have already been ruled out by EU officials as "magical thinking," with the Irish government threatening to veto any deal that does not retain current loose customs relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
UK government officials have been tasked with finding a third compromise option, with a spokesman for May saying last week that the government's policy on customs was now "evolving" as they looked at "a number of options" for resolving the issue.
Discussions about the issue, originally timetabled for a meeting of May's inner cabinet on Thursday, have reportedly been delayed while officials seek a compromise.
Johnson's comments, while publicly questioning May's position, are unlikely to be judged as a breach of the cabinet's 'collective responsibility' given that the government's official policy on customs has not yet been finalised.
However, his public denouncement of plans being personally pushed by the prime minister is the clearest public test of her authority yet by a senior member of her cabinet and is likely to prompt a public response from May's spokesman when he appears before journalists on Tuesday lunchtime.