The joint article by Philip Hammond and Liam Fox in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph was important.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the International Trade Secretary came together to write that a period of transition would be needed after the United Kingdom left the European Union in 2019.
This appeared to be a softening of Mr Fox’s position, who is a firm Brexiteer and had previously seemed wary about a transition phase when he said there was no Cabinet agreement for such.
But the article also appeared to be a hardening of Mr Hammond’s position, because it said that the UK would leave both the European single market and customs union. He had previously appeared to suggest that we might remain in one of the two arrangements, as part of a softer Brexit.
The article is welcome for two reasons: it seems to be a deliberate attempt to demonstrate unity, after what at times has seemed like an alarming free-for-all in the Cabinet.
It ought to hardly need be said that ministers should speak publicly with a single voice, and air their disagreements privately. That this has not been happening is an illustration of the fact that Theresa May’s ministers have no fear of her. If it continues she will have little option but to sack someone senior to make an example of them, regardless of the fact that her own position is precarious.
Yesterday’s article is also welcome for bringing some clarity to the government’s intentions.
Quitting the customs union is the more obvious route for Britain to follow, because otherwise it will not be possible for the UK to strike its own trade deals.
But there is no point denying that leaving the customs union is the development that will cause most difficulties with the Irish land border. Local politicians will have to plan for Brexit with that in mind. A frictionless border is everyone’s aim but Brussels has made clear it will not be easy to achieve.