Why parliament's soft Brexiteers aren't going to press for a customs union – yet

A majority of MPs want to stay in a customs union after Brexit. But the chances of that passing this week are receding. 

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One of the largest potential majorities in the House of Commons is for a Brexit that takes the United Kingdom out of the single market but retains our membership of the customs union.

Most Labour MPs – including those who voted to Leave – think that the Brexit mandate was for an end to the free movement of people and reclamation of British sovereignty over domestic policy with as little disruption as possible. The closest real-world version of that is for the United Kingdom to stay inside the EU’s regulatory orbit, inside the customs union, but outside the single market.

A minority of Conservative MPs broadly agree. One of their number put it to me like this: “Brexit was a vote to get out of the common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy, and the European Court – without breaking any crockery.”  That, too, leans towards a Brexit that takes the United Kingdom out of the single market – but within the customs union.

Yet the prospects that the government will have a customs union forced on it during the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill look to be receding, after several Conservatives to have backed it said publicly that they would now vote against a customs union amendment, and several more Labour MPs and Conservative would-be rebels privately confirmed to the New Statesman that they are likewise minded to vote against an amendment brought forward during the ratification process.

Why? Well, it comes back to the passage of Oliver Letwin’s amendment to stop no deal on Saturday. The majority-makers – the 30 or so pro-Brexit MPs who made the difference between defeat and victory for the government – were MPs, like Letwin, who sincerely wanted to prevent a no-deal Brexit by accident or design but have no desire to stop Brexit.

These MPs also, in the main, want to stay in the customs union rather than the Brexit envisaged by Boris Johnson, which would give the United Kingdom the ability to seek deep and meaningful trade deals but at the cost of wiping out any manufacturer who depends on the frictionless movement of goods between EU member states and the UK. One of their number, Gloria De Piero, the Labour MP for Ashfield, has already said that her next priority is to keep the United Kingdom in a customs union.

But this group has a problem – most of the MPs who voted for Letwin’s amendment did not do so because of the reasons put forward by Letwin himself. They did so because they wanted to stop Brexit. Ditto, these MPs will vote for any customs union amendment, not because they want to keep the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU – but because they want to stay in the EU lock, stock and barrel.

Parliamentary supporters of a soft Brexit are starting to believe that their best approach is to ratify Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement – the legally binding part of which solely refers to the fact of divorce from the EU – and only then to fight to soften it. Why? Because they think at that point the political debate will shift in their favour – away from a harmful Remain-Leave polarity and towards a question of what the final relationship should actually look like – a debate they think cannot be won in open terrain by Boris Johnson.

They think that Johnson’s best hope of winning public consent for the reality of his preferred Brexit destination is if there is an election in which the question is “Brexit, Y/N?”. If the question is about anything else, or the fine detail of his specific Brexit, then the chances of taking the United Kingdom out of the customs union are more complex.

This group hopes that it can, by settling the question of exit, still win the argument over the future relationship, which is why parliament’s latent majority for a customs union is likely to remain unexpressed this week.  

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.