LONDON • The British government yesterday said its so-called "backstop" agreement for the post-Brexit Irish border "should" end in December 2021, as Prime Minister Theresa May moved to head off a potential Cabinet rebellion.
Amid speculation that Brexit Secretary David Davis was preparing to resign over her proposal, Mrs May held crisis talks that resulted in new language on time-limiting her plan to tie Britain to EU Customs rules after leaving the bloc, according to people familiar with the document.
But by setting a date on the plan for the standby arrangement to ensure no return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, Mrs May looked to have put settling a row with her Brexit Minister ahead of securing an agreement with the EU, which has already rejected a time limit.
Unveiling its proposal for a "temporary Customs arrangement", the government said the backstop - which would be put in place only if there was a delay in implementing any Brexit deal - would also see the whole United Kingdom rather than just Northern Ireland remaining aligned with EU rules.
"The UK is clear that the temporary Customs arrangement, should it be needed, should be time limited," said the document, which was also sent to Brussels.
"The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU."
The one-year backstop plan would come after an almost two-year transition period following Britain's departure from the EU in March next year. This was not the government's preferred option, the proposal said, but if it was triggered, Britain should have the right to negotiate, sign and ratify trade deals with other parts of the world.
Last month, Mrs May persuaded Mr Davis and the other pro-Brexit ministers in her inner Cabinet that they should support her plan for a temporary Customs arrangement with the EU, until a new system comes into force. But Mr Davis apparently objected when he saw the wording, because although it stipulated that the extension of EU Customs rules would be time limited, it did not say exactly when the arrangement would come to an end.
The UK's proposal was due to be given to the EU side on Wednesday, but British negotiators were holding it back while Mrs May and Mr Davis argued, officials said.
The issue rapidly became toxic, with Mr Davis failing to quell speculation that he could quit. At the head of a government with no automatic majority in Parliament, Mrs May also knew that the resignation of the minister responsible for her central Brexit policy could trigger a campaign to oust her among disillusioned members of her Tory party.
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, said on Twitter he welcomed the UK's publication and said analysis of it would focus on three main questions: Did it avoid a hard Irish border; did it respect the integrity of the EU's single market and Customs union; and was it "all-weather", meaning it would last until a more permanent arrangement took effect?