The Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport recently investigated claims of Russian interference in the UK electoral process. The committee might soon be forced to go one further and investigate EU interference in our political system. How remarkable that today’s ‘legally-binding’ document from Michel Barnier, which tries to keep Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU comes just 48 hours after Jeremy Corbyn made a speech changing Labour’s policy in order to commit the UK as a whole to remain within the customs union.
I am not party to any conversations Jeremy Corbyn might have had with Michel Barnier or his team, but the Labour leader couldn’t have done better to create the impression of collusion between the two. First, Labour declares that it wants Britain to stay in the customs union, and hopes to bring a vote on which it might help defeat the government with the aid of Conservative rebels. Then, the EU comes up with the preposterous proposal that Britain erect an internal border down the North Sea so that Northern Ireland might remain in the customs union. You don’t have to be too much of a conspiracy theorist to put the two together and ask: is there some coherent plan going on to bounce Britain into the customs union or else to undermine Theresa May, possibly bringing down her Government in the process?
If there is such a plan, it is unlikely to succeed. There is not the slightest chance that Britain could agree to the idea of an internal border within the UK. That is not just the DUP would not allow it – the very suggestion is surely going to come across as an unacceptable interference by the EU in internal UK affairs. As for Britain as a whole remaining in the customs union, Corbyn’s policy has had a lukewarm response at best, with even the staunchly-remain CBI pointing out its faults: that it will remove Britain’s ability to cut its own trade deals outside the EU while simultaneously depriving us of a say in any trade deals the EU might manage to negotiate.
The more these issues are thrashed about, the clearer it becomes that Theresa May came to the right conclusion in her Lancaster House speech of just over a year ago: that if we are going to leave the EU we are going to have to do it properly: withdrawing from all EU institutions and instead negotiating a trade deal. It is a perfectly respectable argument that leaving is a mistake, and perfectly reasonable to campaign for the referendum result to be overturned. But Labour will not do that for a very simple reason: it is just as divided on the EU as are the Conservatives. Any policy it concocts to win the support of Anna Soubry is likely to lose it the support of Frank Field and Kate Hoey. And if even Anna Soubry can’t bring herself to vote against the government? Labour is left with no confidence vote, no general election – and with a dud policy on the customs unions which will give Britain the worst of all worlds.