Rebel MPs are laying a trap to derail Brexit
Have you missed Brexit? After a mercifully long break, during which the political class went away for a lie-down, departure from the EU is back on the Westminster agenda with a bang.
The Brexit secretary David Davis is having his latest explosive row behind the scenes with Oliver Robbins, No 10’s lead civil servant on the EU. Both want control of the negotiations. Meanwhile, Robbins is pushing a plan to keep Britain in a de facto customs union, which Brexiteers fear will leave us as a rule-taker from Brussels. The prime minister’s view on this dispute is, as ever, all but impossible to discern.
Against that backdrop of Whitehall confusion, parliament is embarking on a crucial series of votes that will decide the fate of Brexit. The House of Lords, packed with Remainers, is inflicting various defeats aimed at diluting or even halting departure. In the Commons, a vote next month could, if it attracts sufficient support from rebel Tory MPs, order the government to keep Britain in a customs union.
It is tempting to think of all this as merely the legislative drudgery required to implement the result of the referendum. Brexit is happening, a deal will be done: the rest is noise. But to regard it in those relaxed terms would be a mistake. What results from the parliamentary interplay bubbling up this week will shape our constitutional, economic and foreign policy for a generation at least. On this rests the notion of Britain as a properly independent nation.
If the Commons machinations go awry, we will technically leave the EU next March but remain a rule-taker from the EU. Britain will have exited only to comply with all the rules set by others in perpetuity. For Leave voters, that would be a worse position than membership of the EU. “This is where they try to kill Brexit,” says a minister. The customs union is the murder weapon of choice.
The customs union simply enforces a common schedule of external tariffs across the EU on imports of goods (never services). Britain cannot stay inside it, as it is the legal basis of the entire EU. However, we could establish a new customs arrangement with the EU which, advocates say, would settle the question of the Irish border.
Brexiteers say this is not necessary, as technology and fudge can deal with the problems of smuggling and monitoring trade in livestock if there are different rules on either side of the border. They fear that a trap is being laid, and it is. A customs union, or something like it, could start out temporary but become permanent.
In that scenario, the idea of Britain doing its own trade deals would be stuffed. Worse, the EU would negotiate on our behalf and email us the results. The EU may see this as a way of keeping Britain in step with the rules of the single market, too.
This creeping deceit is what Tory rebels are committed to enforcing by voting with Labour. Ten have signed the amendment. Government whips are nervously running the numbers and it looks like being tight when a vote comes next month. There seem to be four Labour Eurosceptic rebels who would vote against a new customs union, and wild rumours of other “sleeper agent” Labour “Releavers” who will, when it comes to it, not vote to emasculate their country.
In No 10 the mandarin Robbins favours a complex system whereby Britain will collect the EU’s external tariffs and then pay rebates. “How would that even work? Massive shambles,” says a senior Tory. David Davis regards it as unworkable.
There is a school of thought that this confusion is all a cunning recipe cooked up by an enigmatic May to confuse the Commons and Brussels before delivering a much softer Brexit. I doubt it very much. The idea of an inscrutable and Machiavellian prime minister having it all plotted out should have perished along with the Tories’ majority in last year’s general election.
Twelve months on, the consequences of the current stasis in No 10 are potentially grave. If defeat and retreat transpire, Britain risks — via Remainer action, Brexiteer confusion and a deficit of leadership — ending up with a worse deal than Switzerland or Norway. Both are terrific economies but the former has a GDP one third the size of the UK and the latter, one ninth of the UK. They have negotiated arrangements but neither is in a customs union with the EU.
When about 80 per cent of the British economy is domestic, with the remainder divided between trade with the rest of the world and the EU, what serious country would opt for such an undesirable settlement? And then pay — pay! — £39 billion to the EU for the privilege.
It would be a ludicrous position for the sixth-largest economy in the world to land in. Britain is a permanent member of the UN security council and, with the US, of the leading intelligence network, the Five Eyes. It has world-beating universities and enviable capabilities in law, technology and finance.
What would be the reaction to a customs cave-in? Perhaps voter weariness will make pragmatic Britons shrug. They may be grateful that control over borders was returned and accept pleading from the government to do as the EU says. Or some may be very angry.
It may yet be avoided, if the votes are won by the government. However, if it loses, we could soon see Brexiteers asking for a second referendum to vote down a national humiliation inflicted by parliament.