It was a year ago, at the 2017 general election, that Theresa May lost the Conservative majority for a hard – she preferred “clean” – Brexit. Ever since, the Prime Minister has sought to delay a reckoning. For fear of defeat, the government has repeatedly postponed a House of Commons vote on an EU customs union.
Mrs May can delay no longer: the Brexit negotiations are due to conclude this autumn. On Tuesday 12 June, MPs will debate and vote on the 15 amendments made by the House of Lords to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Although the time allotted by the government is absurdly short, the Commons has a chance to transform the nature of Brexit. MPs will vote on whether Britain should join a customs union, whether it should seek EU single market membership and whether a “meaningful vote” will be held on the final Brexit deal (allowing the Commons to force the government to extend negotiations, rather than leave with no deal). In short, a deathblow could be delivered to “hard Brexit”.
For months, rather than negotiating with the EU, Conservative cabinet ministers have quarrelled among themselves over how Britain can leave the customs union without creating a “hard” Irish border. The answer from Brussels has been consistent: it cannot. Neither the “customs partnership” favoured by Mrs May, nor the technology-based “maximum facilitation” favoured by the Brexiteers would ensure the frictionless border the government had promised.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement was a triumph of statecraft. By ending the forced choice between British and Irish identities, it enabled peaceful co-existence between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. People and goods now move freely across an island border with 275 crossings (compared to 20 during the Troubles).
Yet this historic achievement is threatened by the doctrinaire Brexiteers. For them, exit from the customs union would herald the birth of a freewheeling, buccaneering “global Britain”. Rather than being shackled to Brussels, the UK would be liberated to strike valuable trade deals with China, India and “the Anglosphere”.
The ideological and sentimental appeal of this project to Conservatives is obvious, but the economic appeal is not. Economists warn that the inevitable reduction in trade with the EU (the destination of 44 per cent of British exports) would outweigh any gains elsewhere. Indeed, the government’s own analysis suggests that Britain would lose between 2 per cent and 8 per cent of GDP over 15 years from a “hard Brexit” (withdrawal from the single market and the customs union), while new trade deals with the US and others would add no more than 0.6 per cent. Donald Trump’s neo-protectionism – the imposition of tariffs on UK steel and aluminium – has dispelled the illusion that he would be sensitive to British interests.
There is an overwhelming economic and political case for Britain to remain in a customs union. Few voters, Leave or Remain, yearn for free trade deals with the US and China. However, a customs union alone will not prevent a hard Irish border. The UK (or at least Northern Ireland) must remain aligned with single market rules in areas such as agriculture and food.
As Mrs May has increasingly conceded, for ease of trade Britain will have to shadow many EU regulations long after it has left. The UK will be relegated from a rule-maker to a rule-taker. It was precisely for this reason that we and others warned that the promise of sovereignty conferred by the Brexit vote was an illusion. But single market membership, or something comparable to it, may yet be the only means by which the
UK can avoid irrevocable economic harm.
Mrs May had a chance to reach out to MPs and propose an alternative plan when she lost her majority. For fear of being ousted by Brexiteers, however, she maintained that nothing had changed. The Prime Minister’s many foes may yet remove her – but that will not gift them the majority they lack. Faced with a riven and enfeebled government, it falls to MPs to take back control.
This article appears in the 06 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family