New Home Secretary won’t solve the Cabinet customs union conundrum

New Home Secretary won’t solve the Cabinet customs union conundrum

A man who has held a government post since 2010 should not be seen as an ‘unknown quantity’. But that’s exactly what Sajid Javid will be when he joins the Cabinet Brexit sub-committee on Wednesday.

A life-long Eurosceptic, Javid backed Remain in 2016 citing concerns over the impact of Brexit on British businesses. Thoughts of his own career in a Conservative party dominated by the all-powerful figures of David Cameron and George Osborne must also have weighed heavy. How times change.

Unlike his colleague in the Department of Health and Social Care Jeremy Hunt – who now carries the zeal of the convert – however, Javid is a Brexiteer by instinct. In response to reports last month that Theresa May was about to back down on leaving the customs union, the Bromsgrove MP tweeted that “Britain must leave CU [sic] and be able to negotiate & sign own trade deals.”

This has strengthened the resolve of the Brexiteers in Cabinet and indeed the wider Conservative party. They now think they have one of their own in the PM’s inner circle. Crucially, the Brexiteers believe the Remain-Leave split in the Brexit sub-committee has tipped in their favour.

Tension has been building in government ranks over the past fortnight as Leavers smell betrayal on the customs union and the Irish border. Leaving the customs union, after all, is the great prize of Brexit – offering Britain the chance to strike out on its own and sign free trade deals with emerging economies in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Their ire has focused on May’s top Brexit mandarin, Olly Robbins, and the elaborate customs partnership proposal he supports. David Davis and Boris Johnson, backed by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group, could see this as their time to strike.

But it’s not so clear cut. Javid is a pragmatist, both on Brexit and his long-term political ambitions. He will be well aware that May took a risk in promoting him when she could have opted for one of her trusted lieutenants in James Brokenshire or Karen Bradley.

Once dubbed the top Tory MP of his generation, Javid lost some of his shine during his tenure as business secretary thanks to mistakes on business rates and steel job losses. Later, his plans to shake up the housing system were blunted by the political reality of the Conservatives’ support in the Home Counties and shires. Now in the Home Office, Javid probably has his last shot at the top job.

With that in mind, he’ll be inclined to save his political capital for reforming the department, ending his predecessors’ ‘hostile environment’ rhetoric and limiting the fallout from the Windrush fiasco, which has, understandably, left him incensed.

So, when the sub-committee has its much-anticipated meeting on Wednesday, both Remainers and Leavers alike will be pushing the new home secretary to support their cause. But don’t expect much to change. A dissatisfying fudge is far more likely than a fiery showdown.

Back to thoughts