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Monday 23 April 2018

The momentum building towards continued membership of the customs union severely complicates October’s scheduled ‘meaningful vote’. Brexit is doomed unless Theresa May miraculously keeps her troops in line. 

Thursday’s Customs Union motion in the House of Commons is fast approaching. Tory MPs are being encouraged to return to their constituencies a day early to save the embarrassment of a very public government defeat. With that victory in the bank for Remainers, the focus is shifting to the ‘meaningful vote’ scheduled for around October when lawmakers will have the opportunity to veto whatever deal the prime minister returns from Brussels with.

The Lords’ incongruous amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill will tempt May to push harder for her daft idea of a customs union for goods bound for the EU only, which rather than resolving the Irish border conundrum that has thrust customs onto the agenda, makes it more complicated.

Furthermore, a fact Remainers stupidly neglect is the EU refuses to consider the customs union in isolation. If we are to stay in the CU, the whole Single Market stranglehold beckons too. The fudge May is aiming for is unlikely to be forthcoming, much to the disappointment of the Labour Party, together with Tory rebels and indeed perhaps the prime minister herself.

There’s a long way to go between now and October with some independent variables still at play, but in the event May makes it there armed with a conventional trade deal as originally promised, she will have to raise the stakes to get over the final hurdle thanks to the CU amendment backed by the MP’s motion. This is simply because a conventional trade agreement cannot by definition contain provisions for a customs union. The question is, does she go for broke by turning the meaningful vote into a vote of confidence swatting away the amendment?

Rumours of a confidence vote have begun to swirl ever since the Lords’ amendment. The prime minister could use the extra leverage of such a vote. If successful, it would wipe the Customs Union constraint from the EU Withdrawal Bill. If May were to fail to summon a majority to defeat it, she would be forced to resign. At this relatively benign stage in the Brexit negotiations, rebel Tory MPs would not be too fearful of May’s exit, which would explain why she is no longer considering a confidence vote at this stage.

But come October’s meaningful vote, the circumstances would be very different. May would enjoy more leverage because of the disastrous consequences of a no vote at such a delicate point in Britain’s withdrawal process. Tory traitors would face much more severe recriminations within their own party for defying a three-line whip and bringing down their own government.

Due to the fixed Parliament act, a “no” vote to the government would not necessarily trigger an election. Labour would first be asked by the Queen to form the next one. If Jeremy Corbyn were to somehow manage to pull a coalition together, he would be the man heading to Brussels to renegotiate. It goes without saying, he will not return with a better arrangement, nor would he pull out altogether.

The Tories would be in a position to get their act together and table a vote of confidence, which if passed by a simple majority, would see their footing restored – not that it is remotely strong under this parliament. The third possibility would be another general election, requiring a two-thirds majority. Whichever outcome, Britain’s bargaining position in Brussels would be weakened further, to the extent even Remainers on both sides of the aisle would be worried about the consequences. Nevertheless, from their perspective, the Customs Union gambit continues to serve its purpose by undermining the public will.