The Irish border poses a bigger problem for Brexiteers than a Tory rebellion

A confidence vote is unlikely even if Theresa May loses a vote on a customs union.


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How much trouble is Theresa May in over the customs union? Liam Fox is certainly worried and has launched an attack on business over its support for Jeremy Corbyn's plan for the United Kingdom to remain in a customs union after Brexit. “Fox attacks business over Labour support” is the Times' splash.

And William Hague is using his Telegraph column to do some outriding for the Conservative leadership again, warning that if Tory rebels vote with Labour to retain some form of customs union they will usher in a Corbyn government.

There is a lot of talk about the PM turning the customs union into a “confidence issue”, but she can't, because she voted away that power in 2011 when she and the rest of the Conservative Party voted through the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. Thanks to that, there are only two ways you can force an election: the first is through a two-thirds majority in the House of Commons and the second is through not one, but two votes of confidence. (The government must first lose one and a new ministry must fail to pass another within 14 days.) May can threaten to resign herself but the only governments this House of Commons can sustain are Conservative-led ones, whether that be a new Conservative-DUP configuration or some kind of minority government living hand to mouth thanks to piecemeal deals with the DUP and the Liberal Democrats.

So the threat is illusory, not least because from a Tory Remainer perspective, the worst case scenario is you go from a Consevative government being led by a Prime Minister who backs a form of Brexit you don't like to... a Consevative government being led by a Prime Minister who backs a form of Brexit you don't like.

The bigger problem for Brexiteers isn't even the parliamentary arithmetic as far as the customs union go, but the guarantees they made in respect to maintaining an open border on the island of the Ireland at the end of phase one of the negotiations. The only way to do that is to maintain some form of customs union with the EU and a large measure of regulatory alignment, either in Northern Ireland alone or across the entirety of the United Kingdom.

And that policy reality is even more of a constraint as far as the government's Brexit plans go than any temporary alliance between Jeremy Corbyn and Conservative Remainers.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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