May faces the mother of all parliamentary battles on the Customs Union

May faces the mother of all parliamentary battles on the Customs Union


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Theresa May faces a parliamentary battle on Thursday on whether or not the UK should remain part of the Customs’ Union.

There is little scope for a political victory, although 10 Downing Street is holding the proverbial chin up and calling today’s debate “routine.”

The House of Lords – a second Chamber with life-long peers – forced her government to reconsider the issue in a non-binding ruling calling for the amendment of legislation for leaving the EU.

In land with the demands of the House of Lords, the motion debated has the objective to force the government to negotiate “an effective customs union between the two territories” and bears the signature of Conservative MPs such as Bob Neill, Sarah Wollaston, Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve. Labour’s Yvette Cooper made an explicit link between the Customs Union debate and peace in Northern Ireland.

The battleground does not have clear lines.

The government’s official position is that it wants to leave the Customs Union to embark in trade deals as a global player, unchained by the limitations of the old and saturated Single Market. David Davies told the Brexit Select Committee on Wednesday that he expects the parliament to uphold government policy. He also offered assurances that negotiators can conclude a free trade deal, despite this obstacle.

That is wishful thinking, not least because there is no straight answer to the question ‘what happens with Ireland.’

On that question, there is a consensus that Boris Johnson’s notion of a cakes eaten and available in stock is in Brussels parlance “magical thinking”  and, in the words of the new Brexiteer-in-chief Jacob Rees-Mogg ,“completely cretinous.” While Theresa May maintains that it is possible to leave the Customs Union and have a seamless border in Ireland, she cannot convince anyone in either London or Brussels.

Davies admitted on Wednesday that the issue of Ireland may not be resolved by March 2019 but expressed confidence it can be addressed during the transition period.

Hardline Brexiteers, most prominently Rees-Hogg, do not think it is the responsibility of the UK to come up with a solution for Ireland; hardline remainers want the issue of Ireland to be the launchpad of a second referendum campaign. Either way, on Thursday, May enters the battlefield without knowing who stands behind her.

Clearly, the Scottish National Party and the Liberals want to derail Brexit; the same can be said of 10-to-12 Conservative MPs, that is, enough to mesmerize any chief whip. Labour’s official position is that it wants “a Customs’ Union” with the EU, if not the existing one, and is willing to suffer European Court of Justice jurisdiction in the process.

Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer may advocate for a Customs Union a bit more passionately than Jeremy Corbyn, but it is clear that the opposition as a whole relish the idea of a Conservative meltdown that will force Theresa May to resign.

On Wednesday, Keir Starmer dared the government to proceed from a debate to a vote, which Theresa May is not keen to do.  After all, while it is unclear what Labour really wants from a Customs Union, its is crystal clear that it is leading on the polls.  That certainty is perhaps Mrs May’s greatest strength, today, as it has been since June 2017.

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