Can parliament force a government U-turn on the UK’s customs union membership?

Downing Street is trying to bully Conservative Remainers with the threat of letting in a Jeremy Corbyn government.

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Nice precarious hold on power you’ve got there, Prime Minister. Shame if something happened to it.

Downing Street is insisting that there will not be U-turn on the United Kingdom’s membership of any kind of customs union with the European Union after we leave, as they face a series of defeats in the Lords and a possible defeat in a non-binding vote in the Commons on the issue.

As I explained on the Westminster Hour last night, while the defeats this week won't change government policy, they are a canary in the coal mine for the ones that can.

The nightmare for Theresa May is that, thanks to the general election, she faces a situation in which a majority of the governing party favours one approach to Brexit but a majority of the House of Commons favours another. 

The question is: what happens then? Downing Street is also pushing the line that the vote on the customs union will be a “confidence issue”, ie they are trying to bully Conservative Remainers with the threat of letting in a Jeremy Corbyn government. But, of course, thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, there is no such thing as a “confidence issue” outside a very specific motion of no confidence. Or, at least, there is no such thing as a “confidence issue” – which can bring about a new parliament.

May can make the issue one of confidence in her own leadership and resign if she is defeated, but, under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, that wouldn’t trigger a new election: merely an invitation by the Queen to another politician to form a government. And frankly, as far as the Commons arithmetic goes, “another politician” is far more likely to be Michael Gove than Jeremy Corbyn. The process whereby you get even the glimmer of a risk of a Labour government by voting to keep the United Kingdom in a customs union is altogether more complicated and lengthier than Downing Street would like to pretend.

But the problem for Conservatives in particular, and Brexiteers in general, is while they can change the Prime Minister, they can't change the parliamentary arithmetic. Whether the majority of Conservative MPs want it or not, a U-turn on the customs union may well be inevitable.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.