Ashcroft poll gives the Tories hope they can win Eastleigh in 2015

A new poll from Lord Ashcroft shows seven per cent of Lib Dem voters and 10 per cent of UKIP voters expect to vote Conservative at the general election.

One reason why by-elections are a poor predictor of general election results is that voters behave very differently in the former to the latter. People can vote for the party of their choice secure in the knowledge that only the identity of their MP, not the government of the country, will change. 

With this in mind, a new poll from the ever-prolific Lord Ashcroft (recently profiled by Andrew Gimson for the NS) offers useful evidence of how the result in Eastleigh could change in 2015. It shows that just 43 per cent of Lib Dem supporters in the constituency would vote for the party at the general election, with 13 per cent likely to defect to Labour, seven per cent to the Tories and a third undecided. Similarly, only 43 per cent of current UKIP voters expect to stick with the party in 2015, with 10 per cent planning to vote for the Conservatives.

Encouragingly for the Tories, 73 per cent of their supporters expect to vote for the party in the general election, with 23 per cent undecided. If we strip out the don't knows, the Conservatives enjoy a nine-point lead over the Lib Dems (33-24), with Labour in third place on 24 per cent and UKIP in fourth on 16 per cent. 

Is this strong evidence that the Tories will win Eastleigh in 2015? No, the high number of Lib Dem don't knows (34 per cent), at least half of whom are likely to return to the fold, as well as the small sample size (760) means we should be wary of drawing any conclusions. But on an otherwise dark day for the Tories, the Ashcroft poll gives the party a glimmer of hope. 

Lord Ashcroft at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.