Theresa May insists Tories oppose hard border in Ireland | Politics

Published on February 28, 2018

Boris Johnson has faced accusations of cowardice and discourtesy from Labour MPs after he failed to appear in the Commons to answer an urgent question about reports that he privately argued a hard Irish border was possible after Brexit.

The urgent question took place immediately after prime minister’s questions, at which Theresa May insisted she and her foreign secretary were united in rejecting future border checks, rebutting Johnson’s suggestion in a leaked letter.

But Johnson left a cabinet colleague, David Lidington, to respond to the Labour question. As he left the Commons chamber following PMQs, some Labour MPs yelled, “coward!”.

The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, told MPs it was “an absolute disgrace and a huge discourtesy to this house that the foreign secretary is not here himself to answer the questions”.

Noting that Johnson had spoken to a TV news crew about the leaked document near his home that morning, Thornberry said: “If he can answer their questions, he really should be ready to answer ours. What is he afraid of?”

Johnson’s comments had come in a document to the prime minister outlining how he believed the question of the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could be dealt with.

His paper, obtained by Sky News, raised alarm bells by suggesting that even if there were a hard border, it would still allow 95% of goods to pass through unchecked.

Responding to Thornberry’s question on what any future Irish border agreement would be, Lidington, the cabinet office minister, stood up to Labour calls of, “Where is he?”

Lidington said the government’s position had been consistent, and that it would not accept a hard border “which would reverse the considerable progress made through the political process over recent decades”.

This was a commitment agreed by the entire cabinet, Lidington said, adding: “Those commitments have not changed, no will they”.

His words echoed May’s response at PMQs, where the prime minister said she and Johnson were “absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland”.

May said: “That’s the position of the UK government, it’s the position of the parties in Northern Ireland, it’s the position of the Irish government, and it was what we agreed in the December agreement of that joint report.”

But responding to Lidington, Thornberry said Johnson’s document reached the “very heart of his credibility” on the border issue.

She said: “Let us be clear what this memo reveals. Contrary to the foreign secretary’s previous statements he expects that there will have to be changes to the current border arrangements. He accepts that there will need to be border controls that do not exist at present. The only debate is their degree of hardness.

“Which is the truth – what the foreogn secretary said three months ago in public, or what he says three weeks ago in private?”

Lidington replied that Johnson, “like every other member of the cabinet, stands foursquare behind our support for the Belfast agreement and for the December agreements reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union”.


May ‘incapable of delivering a coherent plan for Brexit’, says Corbyn – video

The exchanges followed a noisy PMQs at which Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly targeted what he called the government’s “disarray” over Brexit.

How has the Labour position shifted?

Labour’s 2017 manifesto said merely that the party wanted to retain “the benefits of the single market and the customs union”, and did not say the UK should stay in either. In recent months, however, a series of senior Labour figures have argued for the UK to be in “a” customs union post-Brexit.

What’s the difference between “a” customs union and “the” customs union?

Labour says the latter is the existing arrangement, which ends when we leave the EU, and that “a” union could retain the bulk of the benefits without overly tying the UK to rules made in Brussels. Critics, mainly in the government, argue that this could be seen as Labour’s own version of an unrealistic “cake and eat it” approach.

Why has Labour’s position moved?

Corbyn has never seemed that keen on the customs union, but he has faced pressure both from members of his team – the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has played a key role – and the fact that the majority of Labour members support customs union and single market membership. There is also the incentive that Labour could defeat the government in the Commons by voting with Tory rebels on an amendment to back the customs union.


Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA

Corbyn, focusing on Brexit for a second PMQs in a row, mocked May over her lack of clarity on final Brexit plans, and on the idea of “ambitious managed divergence”, which will supposedly form the basis of her speech on Friday outlining a deal with the EU.

“Could she tell the country what on on earth ambitious managed divergence will mean in practice?” he asked.





Poster on the Dublin road between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic



Poster on the Dublin road between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

May, in response, said Corbyn’s newly announced decision to try to keep the UK in a post-Brexit customs union “would mean giving away control of our laws, our borders and our money, and that would be a betrayal of the British people”.

The Labour leader switched to the view of many business groups that a customs union would be a good idea, taking a dig at the contrasting view of Liam Fox.

“Who does she think might be better at identifying the business opportunities of the future – the Confederation of British Industry, the Engineering Employers’ Federation and the Institute of Directors, or the international trade secretary?” Corbyn asked.

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