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Why a customs union is looking less likely

19 January 2019

10:40 AM

19 January 2019

10:40 AM

Immediately after the government’s crushing defeat on Tuesday night, a slew of Cabinet Ministers thought that it was inevitable that Theresa May would have to make some kind of concession on the customs union to get a deal through parliament. But, as I say in The Sun this morning, this option has run into two obstacles.

First, Corbyn and McDonnell aren’t playing ball. Without their blessing, there is no way you could get 116 Labour MPs to vote with a Tory PM.

Secondly, it has become clear that agreeing to a customs union would not only split the Tory party, lead to at least one Cabinet resignation, but would also—according to one senior Cabinet Minister—lose the support of 40 MPs who voted for the deal on Tuesday night. May herself is not keen on the idea either; she thinks that having an independent trade policy is one of the main economic benefits of Brexit.

For these reasons, she emphasising to Tory MPs that she doesn’t want to give way on the customs union.  One minister tells me that ‘the penny is dropping with her about what the effect on the party and membership would be of going for a customs union. It is potentially devastating.’


So, what’s the plan? Well, the hope is that Tory Brexiteers will realise that the whole thing could be stopped and all but a hardcore of them will come round. ‘The Brexiteers are now looking for solutions’, one Secretary of State tells me.

This would leave the government needing to get the support of 30 to 40 Labour MPs. This would be difficult but potentially doable.

One Cabinet Minister who has had discussions with Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks that there is a growing chance that with some progress on the backstop, he could be persuaded to back the deal. If that happened, it would give cover to a lot of other Tory MPs who voted against the deal on Tuesday night to do the same.

But there is a growing view among those close to the discussions this week, that Article 50 may well be extended. In other words, the UK wouldn’t leave on March 29th.

It had always been the view that the EU would only agree to an extension if it was clear where that would lead to. But ministers believe there are now signs that the EU would be prepared to grant an extension, albeit with conditions, regardless. They reason that the EU would not want to be responsible for triggering no deal.

But simply extending Article 50 with no idea of what to do next, would delay—not resolve—the issue.

Ministers who want to stop no deal have formed their own group, which meets to plot strategy. At the same time, other Cabinet Ministers and Number 10 are becoming increasingly irate with them. One member of May’s circle dismisses them, saying ‘These people are Remainers inside the Cabinet’. While one exasperated Cabinet Minister complains, ‘Do they just not get the politics of this?’

These arguments are only going to get more heated as the clock ticks down to March 29th.


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