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Thursday 19 April 2018

A vaguely worded amendment to keep Britain in the customs union may not pose a huge challenge for the government’s stated ambition of leaving the Customs Union, but once again, it shows the British people do not have the political system they deserve.  

Late yesterday afternoon, the pro-Remain Lords inflicted another setback on the government’s Brexit ambitions, voting 348 to 225 in favour of an amendment to keep Britain in the Customs union. The revised clause to the EU Withdrawal Bill received a volley of scathing criticism during the preceding debate.

“This is a political argument dressed up as a trade argument,” said Lord Lawson who repeatedly scorned the “wrecking amendment”. The former Chancellor said that while he understood those political arguments, there was no economic rationale behind remaining in the Customs Union, which would mean Britain continues to be deprived of an independent trade policy and would be enslaved to the EU regulatory machine on all industrial goods. Not only would we not be able to sign our own trade deals and set our own tariffs, but the EU would enforce the basic terms of new trade deals on us, which we would then have no bargaining power to wriggle out or improve the terms of.

This is the hostile situation Turkey – a nation only in the EU in the vain hope of one day joining the bloc – currently finds itself in. Third nations signing FTAs with Brussels are automatically given tariff-free access to most of the Turkish market. But third countries have no obligation to offer Ankara reciprocal terms. In joining the Customs Union, Turkey has literally voted for Christmas. This fate must not befall the United Kingdom.

The Remainers, notably the sponsors of the amendment, Lords Patten and Kerr resorted to technical detail amounting to little of substance and even less sense. As an argument for staying tied to the EU’s dwindling market, Lord Patten cited a trade surplus the UK has with South Korea (which has a trade deal with the EU) as a reason to be sceptical of a global Britain. He failed to mention that the surplus is dwarfed by the EU’s with the UK, placing us on an enviable footing to extract a decent deal out of Brussels.

Lord Forsyth joined Lawson in calling out Patten and Kerr’s sinister motives: “What is going on here is an exercise by Remainers in this House, who are the majority, who refuse to accept the verdict of the British people, and I believe they are playing with fire,” said Forsyth, reminding his fellow peers that the purpose of the Withdrawal Bill was not to constrain the government’s negotiating position but to set up the right legislative conditions for a smooth exit from the Single Market.

As reported in yesterday’s Brexit Brunch the amendment is inert:

The condition is that…the framework for the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union, an arrangement which enables the United Kingdom to continue participating in a customs union with the European Union.

One Cabinet Minister told the Mail, it was “not prescriptive” and the government could “live with it”.

“This amendment does not commit the UK to remaining in a customs union with the EU, it requires us to make a statement in Parliament explaining the steps we’ve taken.

“Our policy on this subject is very clear. We are leaving the customs union,” said a spokesperson for the Department for Exiting the EU.

The House of Commons could still throw the amendment out, but the prospects are slim. It was tabled by Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Crossbench peers. Speaking on the Today Programme this morning, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer expressed his confidence a Customs Union commitment would make it into the final Act. With an eye on the Tory rebels, who would most certainly defend the amendment, Starmer said there was a “growing consensus” in Parliament that the government has got it wrong on customs, even though his colleague Barry Gardiner, the Shadow Trade Secretary was recently discovered to be highly critical of it, describing it as bollocks.

Typically, the likes of Gardiner, Lawson and Forsyth are part of a minority in Parliament, but the public majority. Their peers, elected and unelected, should take note.