Coulson's return to the fray is bad news for Cameron

It is not helpful for a man about to stand trial to remind everyone just how well he knows "David".

The news that Boris Johnson has his eyes on David Cameron's job might not count as much of a revelation but in this case it's the source that's notable: Andy Coulson. Three months before he stands trial on charges of phone-hacking, Cameron's former director of communications has broken his silence in GQ

Offering his "ten-point masterplan for saving David Cameron and stopping Labour in 2015", Coulson writes that Boris "desperately wants to be prime minister and David has known that fact longer than most", adding that "stabbing David, or anyone else for that matter, in the back would be distinctly off brand – just not very Boris.  He would much prefer to see David fail miserably in the election and ride in on his bike to save party and country."

Elsewhere, he offers a rather banal assessment of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, wrongly suggesting (in my view) that Miliband's decision to appoint Balls as shadow chancellor is the "gift that will keep on giving" and that the differences between the pair will prove as significant as those between Blair and Brown.

He writes: "The prime minister should pray Ed Balls remains shadow chancellor until the election … Appointing him as George's opposite number was the Miliband gift that will keep on giving … The Tories must look for the divisions and make the most of them a) because they are most certainly real – always a plus – and b) because it's history repeating itself.

"We are in this hole at least in part because of the shamefully dysfunctional Blair/Brown relationship. Labour's two Eds dislike each other and each thinks he is smarter than the other. The Conservatives should imagine in some detail how it would work if they actually won … and share that vision with the British public."

But regardless of the validity or otherwise of Coulson's political analysis, his return to the fray is unambiguously bad news for Cameron. As the PM attempts to counter Ed Miliband's charge that he "stands up for the wrong kind of people", it is not helpful for a man about to stand trial to remind everyone that he's on first name terms with the prime minister ("David"). 

Conversely, others will point to Coulson's piece as evidence of exactly the kind of political nous that Downing Street currently lacks. There is a popular view among Tory MPs that Cameron's woes stem in part from his decision to surround himself with Etonian "chums", rather than working class Thatcherites of Coulson's variety. It is also argued that the former News of the World editor would not have allowed relations with the ring-wing press to deteriorate to the point where the Daily Telegraph, the house magazine of the Conservative Party, all but declares war on Cameron and the Sun, just three years after describing Cameron as "our only hope", refuses to even endorse the Tories at the local elections. 

Coulson's intervention, then, offers openings for Cameron's enemies on both the left and the right. Ahead of the trial, Downing Street must have hoped for a period of dignified silence from Coulson; that wish has not been granted. 

Andy Coulson leaves the High Court in London on May 10, 2012 after giving evidence to the Leveson inquiry. 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.