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1) Amber Rudd Clearly Just Likes Being In The News
I said it last week and I’ll say it again: the customs union just won’t die. The latest Prince Charming queuing up to give it a kiss of life was Amber Rudd, who seemed to let slip to journalists at a Press Gallery lunch that the issue was still up for grabs.
Asked if it was “more or less likely” the UK would stay in the customs union with the EU after Brexit, Rudd said: “I’m afraid I’m not going to be drawn on that - we still have a few discussions to be had in a really positive and consensual easy way with some of my Cabinet colleagues in order to arrive at a final decision.”
Her claim that the topic was very much up for discussion was, understandably, met with anger by Brexiteers. Tory MP Peter Bone just about stopped short of calling for her to ousted, tweeting instead: “We cannot have Home Sec not supporting this key plank of Brexit!”
The rumours of a betrayal kicked off over the weekend, and despite Downing Street repeating the line that the UK is leaving the customs union and not joining a new one, many are spooked.
“Who would vote for us?” he asked, adding: “I don’t see how politically this is going to work…I don’t think it will happen in the first place but if it did it would be put right through ballot box.”
Theresa May seems to be quite clear there will be no customs union with the EU, and in PMQs on Wednesday she said: “As regards being in a customs union, that means that we would not be able to negotiate our own trade deals around the rest of the world, and we want to be able to do that.”
The suggestion from the BBC on Monday was that May would turn any vote on a customs union into a confidence vote, i.e. if you defeat this, I’ll call a General Election.
Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act, that is not technically possible, as she would then have to go back to MPs in order the get the support of the necessary two-thirds required to call a snap election.
If she did make it into a confidence vote, it is more likely to be on her staying as Prime Minister. The threat to bring Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and others into line wouldn’t be “defeat this and you’ll put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street”, it will be “defeat this and you’ll put Jacob Rees-Mogg in Downing Street.”
2) Meanwhile in the Commons...
Thursday’s big debate on the customs union was something of an anti-climax.
The Government kept up its practice of not voting in backbench debates, meaning it was difficult to get a sense of which Tories would be prepared to defy party orders and walk through the division lobbies with Labour.
One of the most entertaining speeches during the three-hour debate came from former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. Reflecting on the many things he had learnt since Brexit, the Remain-backer quipped:
“Apparently the Windrush scandal is the European’s fault because they are in favour of people presenting papers, and that Brexiteers are very pro-immigration. I’ve learnt there’s no longer going to be a bonfire of regulations from the EU, that it’s actually alright we’re going to adopt all of the EU regulations.”
Vaizey was not one of the 11 Tories that helped defeat the Government on ensuring Parliament had a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal in December, but in the Commons on Thursday he showed every indication he would be willing to tie the Government in to keeping the UK in a customs union in its negotiation with Brussels.
Similarly, George Freeman, formerly Theresa May’s head of policy, was equally as vocal about his support of keeping the UK not just in the customs union but the Single Market as well.
The size of the rebellion is growing, but its all very well doing it in a friendly, will they turn up for the big match?
3) David Davis Insists He’s Not ‘Winging It’
The key question is when will the vote on the customs union take place. Sir Keir Starmer generously offered to give up Labour’s opposition day debate on Wednesday to allow the Government to bring forward one of its Brexit-related bills to put the matter to be “once and for all”. May did not take up the invitation.
Appearing before the Brexit Select Committee on Wednesday, David Davis suggested that pro-customs union MPs might not have to rely on amending minor bits of legislation to get their way – they could have an impact on the big one: the final deal.
The Government had previously insisted the options available to MPs when it came to the deal was ‘take it or leave it’. But Davis hinted that the Government would listen to any amendment passed.
The Brexit Secretary said in the autumn Parliament was likely to be presented with “a political declaration rather than a treaty draft” – suggesting it would be more a direction of travel document than a detailed map.
Committee chair Hilary Benn asked Davis whether that motion put before Parliament would be amendable, receiving the reply: “If you can tell me how to write an unamendable motion, I will take a tutorial.”
He added: “The government is unlikely to put a vote to the House which it doesn’t intend to take properly seriously. If the House rejects the proposed negotiation, that negotiation will fall.”
Perhaps realising he had said too much, Davis declined to play Labour MP Stephen Kinnock’s game of whether the Government would go back to Brussels with its tail between its leg if the “political declaration” was amended, but it was definitely softer language than the previous ‘take or leave it’ declarations.
4) It’s Starting To Get Real For Brussels
It is the moment many cynics believed Brussels feared the most: making a Budget without the milk from the UK cash cow.
The European Commission is drawing up its financial plan for the next cycle, which covers 2021 to 2027, and will have to do without the £13billion or so a year it gets from the UK.
According to Bloomberg, Brussels will call for cuts in farm and regional aid, but ask for an increase in security spending. Member states will be asked to put more into the collective pot, but analysis by the Financial Times suggest that an increase in growth across the EU might mean the Brexit black hole is not as big as initially feared.
Of course, that hole will be bigger and deeper if no deal is agreed between the UK and the EU, with the £40billion divorce settlement dependent on an agreement being reached.
Don’t Get Angry, Get Blogging…
At HuffPost we love a good blog, and here are the finest Brexit-penned entries from this week. Have a read, and if any of them provoke an urge in you to speak your brain, send a blog to email@example.com and you could find yourself in this very newsletter.
Armida van Rij on why, thanks to Macron, France is replacing the UK in the ‘special relationship’
Libby Cherry on why young people are ‘reluctant’ Remainers and ready to be engaged
Robert Glick on how the clock is ticking to get the best Brexit for small businesses