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Rumour about May’s customs union stance excites Remainers

26 February 2018

3:26 PM

26 February 2018

3:26 PM

Could the Conservatives crash out of government in the next few months? That’s certainly a prospect that Theresa May’s allies want to talk up in order to scare would-be supporters of Anna Soubry’s amendment on Britain staying in ‘a’ customs union after Brexit. We discuss whether making the amendment a confidence issue is really the smartest move on our latest Coffee House Shots podcast – and in today’s Evening Standard I report that Remainers really do think the whips would be calling their bluff by adopting this strategy.

But I’ve also picked up an interesting theory doing the rounds among would-be rebels, which is that Theresa May will use her Road to Brexit speech on Friday to announce a concession on the matter of Britain having ‘a’ customs union arrangement of one sort or another. This would remove the high-stakes, last minute wranglings that going all the way to a vote on the amendment to the Trade Bill would entail, and it’s worth remembering that the Tory whips haven’t always got their predictions right when it comes to big votes (just remember how late in the day it was that they realised they were walking to a defeat on David Cameron’s plans to intervene in Syria in 2013). It would also represent a significant change in policy that would, as James explained at the weekend, really hobble Britain’s ability to strike free trade deals with other countries. Forget Barry Gardiner growing increasingly irritated with people quoting his own words back at him on what he thinks about customs unions: this would involve Theresa May reversing over previous assertions that there won’t be a customs union of any kind.

My hunch is that this rumour is either wishful thinking on the part of MPs who really don’t want to get in to a stand-off with the whips, or a deliberate tactic on the part of the harder core of the Remainers, who would be benefit from the disappointment that would follow if a lot of MPs started to think that there could be a change of policy. But the fact that it is circulating at all is very interesting indeed.


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