Theresa May has put safeguarding her position from hardline Tory Brexiters above safeguarding a good outcome in Brexit negotiations by committing to taking Britain out of any prospect of a customs union with the EU – however impossible a position that may be.
A Number 10 source insisted: “it is not our policy to be in the customs union. It is not our policy to be in a customs union.”
The statement was a bizarre U-turn after Theresa May pressed by Sky News on her trade trip to China about whether the UK will stay in a customs union on Friday refused to rule it out, saying: “what I want to do is ensure that we have got the best possible trade arrangements with China and with other countries around the world.”
The customs union allows goods and services to be traded across the EU zone without the need for a log jam at borders and complex negotiations on regulations and levels of tariffs for different quantities of each item.
This new statement ruling out membership of “the” customs union or “a” customs union goes against the country’s interests according to the government’s own commissioned studies which were leaked last week, warning that Britain would be poorer.
It also appears to be another U-turn dictated by hard-line Brexiteers. – The government’s own paper on its Brexit negotiating position regarding future customs arrangements set out that to ensure frictionless trade with Britain’s biggest trading partner – the EU – and the impossible task of a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland – “streamlining” requirements or “aligning our approach to the customs border in a way that removes the need for a UK-EU customs border” would be advisable.
Embarrassingly, Home Secretary Amber Rudd made this precise point only hours before Downing Street put out the statement contradicting her. Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr if Theresa May would consider a customs arrangement with the EU, Rudd insisted: “she has an open mind on it. We published a document last year saying how we would do it and we proposed either a customs arrangement or a customs partnership. Those are both alternatives we could look at.”
Showing the utter confusion and division within the Conservative Party on this, minutes later on Sky News Sunday With Paterson, Rudd’s Tory colleague Brexiteer Dominic Raab was insisting “I do not think that we will be in any form, at least as conceived in international trade practice, of customs union, because … we would have our hands tied while negotiating trade deals with other parts of the world whether it is Brazil or China or India.”
The Prime Minister’s vow to take Britain out of any customs union on the eve of the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier arriving at Number 10 will throw another spanner into Brexit negotiations.
Theresa May’s U-turn certainly seems more about securing her own position than securing a good outcome in Brexit negotiations as speculation abounds about replacing her at the helm of the Tory party.
The Sunday Times reported Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson readying plotters for a future Conservative leadership contest with him and fellow far-right hard-line Brexiteers Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg taking over.
The paper said Boris Johnson was insisting that “the cavalry” was coming to block a customs union plan when the Brexit committee meets this week, so it appears that the Prime Minister has headed her Foreign Secretary off at the pass.
Number 10’s statement will cause much consternation for remainers and those hoping a soft Brexit would allow Britain to continue to trade frictionlessly with our biggest and nearest trading partner – the EU.
It also throws the future of Northern Ireland into jeopardy as abandoning a customs union would spell an end to the Good Friday agreement as it is predicated on having no customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Remainer Tory MP Anna Soubry last night pointed out that not being part of a customs union would actually make the implementation of Phase 1 of the Brexit agreement with the EU impossible as all sides had agreed that Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom will indeed be in a customs union. “Never mind the rhetoric that’s the reality!” she explained.
“The statement from Theresa May that the UK will not be in the, or a Customs Union confirms the crazed, extreme Brexiters are now in control of government,” warned Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake, adding it “will cause maximum damage to the UK.”
“Part of UKIP reverse takeover of Tory Party: hence Mrs May forced to rule out any Customs Union. Economically ludicrous and breach of the Good Friday Agreement!” – reacted Lord Adonis, the Labour peer who recently resigned as the government’s infrastructure tsar writing to Theresa May, warning the PM that “by allying with UKIP and the Tory hard right to wrench Britain out of the key economic and political institutions of modern Europe, you are pursuing a course fraught with danger.”