Commons Confidential: Fox flinches and Crow crows

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies?

Call Me Dave’s northern pet, Eric Pickles, is forever lecturing cash-strapped councils on the importance of belt-tightening in his fatwa on local government. Yet Big Eric’s own girth appears to be expanding alarmingly. Near his office in the Commons is a lift. The elevator often takes three people or, at a squash, four. Recently, an MP told my snout, the thing stopped and the door opened. Inside, filling the lift, was the single, brooding figure of Pickles.

I discovered that Colonel Patrick Mercer is the keeper of a Gladstone axe. The Tory MP for Newark possesses a chopper swung by his illustrious predecessor before Gladstone quit his seat and the Conservatives for the Liberals and four stints in Downing Street. Mercer insists it is of sentimental rather than financial value. Apparently there are sufficient Gladstone axes in circulation to fell Sherwood Forest. Gladstone was an enthusiastic woodworker when he wasn’t saving fallen women. A world away from Cameron’s Angry Birds.

Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, is a Tory trooper capable of remaining cool under fire. A hack in a bar introduced himself to the neocon and then announced: “You touched my mother’s breasts.” In many a watering hole such an opening gambit would be the cue for a fight. I nearly dropped my pint, though I noticed Fox didn’t flinch. From the tenor of the ensuing conversation, I gathered that Dr Fox had been the woman’s GP, and the aforementioned event an NHS medical examination. Former patients and their extended families reminding Fox of his past profession is apparently an occupational hazard, hence the frozen face.

It’s an old local newspaper trick on a quiet news day, but Bernard Jenkin may well have winced when a survey by the Harwich and Manningtree Standard found only 6 per cent of constituents stopped on the street identified him as the Conservative MP for their corner of Essex. Boris Johnson may dream of a recognition level so low, now 99 per cent of Britain know he’s an untrustworthy, calculating blob of unlimited blond ambition after his leadership bicycle was punctured by Eddie Mair. Jenkin should console himself that anonymity is better than antipathy.

Ed Miliband informed the Durham miners he’ll speak at the 2014 gala after he was tickled by an enthusiastic reception in 2012. He was the first Labour leader to address the brass-bands-and-banners Big Meeting since Neil Kinnock in 1989. Miliband declined this year’s invitation, as he did in 2011, to avoid sharing a stage with the RMT’s trainstopper Bob Crow, whose outspokenness gives the leader’s office the heebie-jeebies. Your correspondent has no such qualms and shall speak alongside Mr Crowbar and Unite’s “Red Len” McCluskey on 13 July.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Just why does Bob Crow give Ed Miliband's office the heebie-jeebies? Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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.