Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell in a photo that David Cameron probably hasn't made his iPad background. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage has his eye on more Tory defections, but will it happen?

Following the surprise news this week that Douglas Carswell MP has defected from the Conservatives to Ukip, Nigel Farage is anticipating more Tories joining his fold.

The surprise politics news this week is the defection of Douglas Carswell, erstwhile maverick Tory backbencher, to Ukip. And as is appropriate considering his obsession with direct democracy and restoring faith in Westminster politics, he will stand down as an MP to trigger a by-election, in order to attempt to get re-elected by his Clacton constituents now he’s changed his political allegiance.

And just when we didn’t think it was possible for the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, to look even more like an elated frog, he’s popped up by Carswell’s side both for his announcement yesterday and his constituency visit today, and is crowing that more MPs – both Tories and Labour – could join Ukip if Carswell wins the by-election. He has written a piece in the Independent today anticipating more defections:

There are an increasing number of Conservative and Labour backbenchers who not only support UKIP fully in what it is trying to achieve, but view the impact of open-door immigration... with increasing urgency.

There are rumours bouncing around Westminster about who could follow in Carswell’s footsteps, and the Independent reports that the Tory whips were anxiously ringing round the “usual suspects” last night in an attempt to stave off more copy-cat defections. The Mail reports that there are eight other Conservative MPs who have held “intensive talks” with Ukip about defecting, Carswell being one of nine to have been wined and dined in secret Mayfair lunches by the millionaire Ukip donor, Stuart Wheeler.

However, BBC’s Nick Robinson on the Today programme this morning called the idea that there are eight more about to defect “tosh”, and insisted that “anybody who tells you they know who is going to join Ukip is probably lying” and “the idea that this is part of a planned roll-out I think is slightly nonsense”.

The Independent lists the most likely future Tory defectors, calling them Ukip’s “potential targets”. On the list are Nadine Dorries, Michael Fabricant, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone and David Nuttall.

Many of these figures and other “suspects” have expressed their disappointment at Carswell’s decision and pledged their loyalty to the Conservative party, one among these being the eurosceptic John Redwood MP who told the Today programme he “entirely” agreed with everything Carswell had said up until yesterday, reflecting that the defecting MP had been “super-loyal” up until then. He added that the “so-called eight are figments of Ukip’s imagination… dream on, Ukip.”

It is perhaps a matter of exaggeration on both sides. Ukip is playing up the danger to the Conservative leadership it poses, while the Tory MPs who have some Ukip sympathies are protesting too much when they insist on their absolute allegiance to the PM. There is more of a practical point to why it's unlikely that there will be a slew of defections following Carswell. He has set a precedent by triggering a by-election – which is not a necessary move for an MP changing parties ­– and so anyone following his lead would have to stand down and seek re-election too. However, not all Ukip-leaning Tory MPs have as comfortable a majority, and as strong a local profile, as Carswell, so they would be risking losing their seat if they took such a gamble.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at 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.