Cameron insists the culture department will survive, but in what form?

Maria Miller refuses to deny that her department will lose some of its responsibilities in the Spending Review.

Will next week's Spending Review see the abolition of the culture department? Last month I reported on speculation in Whitehall that the DCMS, which small-staters have long had in their sights, could be scrapped by the government. Shadow culture minister Dan Jarvis told me that while he was "not convinced" that significant savings could be made by scrapping the department, "the government could go down this road to demonstrate that it is 'leading by example' in these tough times and has found way in which 'to do things more efficiently'."

But in response to a written question from Jarvis on whether "he has any plans to abolish the Department for Culture, Media and Sport", David Cameron has offered an unambiguous "no". That, however, doesn't rule out the distribution of some of its responsibilities to other departments. Asked on The World At One to comment on reports that the DCMS is "at risk of having some of its responsibilities taken away and even abolished altogether", Maria Miller gave a notably equivocal answer:

Our department does a huge amount of work, not just in this area [internet pornography] but across the board with arts, media, sports, equalities and women's issues. These are the issues the government is working hard on, I think as a department we've never been busier, we've never had more to do, so I think actions speak louder than words. 

Asked whether she was "sure" no responsibilites would be taken away, Miller, whose aides have been promoting her status as "the only mother" in the cabinet in a bid to save her job, refused to say that she was:

I know that the work that we're doing, whether it's on the equal marriage bill that's going through the Lords at the moment, whether it's the work we're doing around the internet, or, indeed, the work that we're doing supporting, actively supporting the role of the arts, culture and our museums in this country are of incredible importance and, as I say, I don't think there's even been a busier time in our department and I don't think we've ever had more to do which really matters to the future of this country.

Based on that answer, it seems that the DCMS, at least in its present form, may well cease to exist. 

Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, speaks at last year's Conservative conference in Birmingham. 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.