Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
16 July 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:20pm

Has Theresa May just signed away her Brexit strategy?

The Prime Minister has accepted a series of wrecking amendments. What’s going on?

By Stephen Bush

The government has accepted all four of the European Research Group’s amendments to the Customs Bill, potentially averting parliamentary defeat later tonight. But has Theresa May given up her Brexit policy as a result?

Not really. The amendments commit the government to several things: no further barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, for the United Kingdom to be bound from collecting excise receipts on the behalf of the European Union unless the arrangement is reciprocated by the European Union, and for the United Kingdom to be unable to stay in the customs union without primary legislation to that affect.

There is, of course, a strong possibility that the amendments won’t pass anyway, as the government can suffer defeat from either side of its party, and Conservative Remainers may opt not to play ball.

This has a couple of immediate consequences. The first is that it legally prohibits the British government from implementing a Northern Ireland-only regulatory and customs arrangement to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The thing is, though, that as May has repeatedly said, there is no way that any British Prime Minister could sign up to that arrangement and keep their job, and that is doubly true for any Conservative British Prime Minister. All that has happened is the jagged rocks which the British government must avoid at all costs have become jagged rocks which the British government is legally bound to avoid at all costs.

Select and enter your email address Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A quick and essential guide to domestic politics from the New Statesman's Westminster team. A weekly newsletter helping you understand the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email. Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The second is that it upends the basis for May’s “facilitated customs partnership”. But the important thing about the facilitated customs partnership, and indeed about May’s Chequers plan in general, is that it is never going to happen. It is logistically unachievable and politically impossible for too many of the EU’s member states.

Content from our partners
How software will make or break sustainability
Sustainable finance can save us from the energy crisis – with the Luxembourg Stock Exchange
How trailblazers are using smart meters to make the move to net zero

What matters about May’s Chequers plan is that in the only Brexit calculation that matters – whether the United Kingdom should prize the freedom to set its own regulations or access to the internal market of the European Union – she has decisively come down in favour of “access”. The largely nonsensical route May has sketched out to get there is, at the moment, essentially irrelevant.

What about the commitment not to stay in the customs union without primary legislation? That comes back to the big problem that both the government and the ERG have: that thanks to May’s disastrous handling of the election the only Brexit with a semi-plausible passage to passing the House of Commons is a soft one. And committing the government to passing its Brexit plans through parliament doesn’t unblock that central problem.