POLITICS
19/04/2018 12:20 BST | Updated 19/04/2018 13:30 BST

May Faces Fresh Brexit Ambush As Senior MPs Stage Crunch Vote On Customs Union

After huge Lords defeat, PM facing Commons showdown on 'red line'

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Theresa May is facing a fresh Parliamentary showdown over Brexit after senior MPs tabled a motion on a continued customs union between the UK and the EU.

The Commons Liaison Committee, made up of the chairs of a string of influential select committees, will next week hold a backbench debate on the topic of “customs and borders”.

Home Affairs Committee chair, Yvette Cooper, and Treasury Select Committee chair, Nicky Morgan, have joined forces to draft a motion that specifically includes the customs union, HuffPost UK has learned.

The motion tabled on Thursday includes the key line that the Commons:

“calls on the Government to include as an objective in negotiations on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union the establishment of an effective customs union between the two territories”.

It also points out that that the EU is the UK’s largest market for goods, with £145bn of exports and £241bn of imports in 2016.

The motion stresses the importance of avoiding a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the role of a customs union in achieving that.

Senior Tory backbencher and former Attorney General Dominic Grieve added his name to motion’s signatories on Thursday.

In a joint blog for HuffPost, Cooper and Morgan wrote: “With just six months to go before the Brexit deal needs to be concluded, we are running out of time for Parliament to help to shape the negotiations.

“Yet many of our backbench committees have forensically gathered evidence on different Brexit options and the practical implications.

“That is why committee chairs at the Liaison Committee – including those who voted leave and who voted remain, supporters and opponents of a customs union – concluded that backbench MPs should get the chance of an early constructive debate and vote on this crucial issue, not bound by the party whips, but informed by committee evidence instead.

“As two of those chairs, we both believe the case for a customs union is overwhelming - for the sake of British manufacturing, international trade, smooth borders and Northern Ireland peace.

“If Parliament stays silent until after the deal is done, that is just a recipe for conflict and regret later on. Far better for us to debate this properly now and let Parliamentarians express their view before it is too late.”

In their blog, the pair added that manufacturing jobs was a key issue for them.

“Changing our terms of trade to hit manufacturing communities across the North and Midlands hard is not a responsible way for Parliamentarians to behave and it is deeply unfair to those whose local manufacturing jobs would be hit.”

The full text of the motion reads:

That this House notes:

that the European Union is the UK’s largest export market for goods, accounting for a total of £145bn of exports and £241bn of imports in 2016;

further notes the Government’s expressed aim to secure the freest and most frictionless possible trade in goods between the UK and the EU after 29 March 2019 

further notes the importance of frictionless trade without tariffs, customs or border checks for manufacturers and businesses across the country who trade with the EU;

further notes that the free circulation of goods on the island of Ireland is a consequence of the UK’s and Republic of Ireland’s membership of the EU Customs Union;

further notes the Government’s commitment (i) in the UK-EU joint report on progress during phase 1 of the Article 50 negotiations to the maintenance of North-South cooperation and the all-island economy on the island of Ireland, (ii) that the Belfast Agreement implemented in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 should remain a fundamental principle of public policy, and (iii) to the continuation of unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market;

and therefore calls on the Government to include as an objective in negotiations on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union the establishment of an effective customs union between the two territories.

Crucially, there will be a vote on the substantive motion next Thursday, raising the prospect of Tory “Remainer rebels” inflicting a significant defeat on Brexiteer plans to rule out any form of tariff-free union with Brussels. 

The House of Lords voted twice with huge majorities on Wednesday night to amend the so-called EU Withdrawal Bill, with peers urging ministers to keep alive the option of a customs union after Britain formally quits the EU next March.

The new Liaison Committee motion however is more explicit than the Lords motion in that it calls on the Government not just to make a statement on the issue but to include a customs union in its negotiations.

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The Lords inflicted a 123-majority defeat on the Government on Wednesday night

May has a wafer-thin majority in the Commons and it would take just 10 Tory backbenchers to side with Labour, Lib Dems and the SNP to score a symbolic victory. 

‘Remainer’ Conservatives chair important select committees. As well as Morgan on the Treasury Select, Sarah Wollaston chairs the Health Select Committee and Bob Neill the Justice Select Committee.

Other key chairs whose names are on the motion are the SNP’s Pete Wishart and Angus McNeil, the Lib Dems’ Norman Lamb and Labour’s Hilary Benn, who chairs the Brexit Select Committee.

Even those members of the Liaison Committee who do not back a customs union have agreed to the debate.

Cross-party campaigners argue that the customs union is the only viable way to protect jobs, support manufacturing and help avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland after the UK leaves the EU on March 29, 2019.

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Home Affairs Committee chair Yvette Cooper

But Theresa May appeared to harden the Government’s stance on the issue earlier this year when she echoed International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who claimed the UK could not be part of any customs ‘union’ with the EU as that would restrict plans to strike deals with non-EU states.

Peers voted by 348 to 225 for a cross-party amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to require the Government to say how its negotiations with Brussels will continue the tariff-free trade arrangement with the EU.

The huge size of the majority - 123 votes - underlined the strength of the alliance of Labour, Liberal Democrat, crossbencher and Tory rebel peers and spelled trouble for the PM as a raft of other amendments are due in coming weeks.

The bill returns to the Commons in late May and Tory backbenchers are under intense pressure from Downing Street and their whips to toe the party line.

A senior Government source told HuffPost that the motion was “meaningless gesture politics”. “Is the Government’s position to have an IN-effective customs arrangement?”

Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said: “This is further evidence of the growing chorus of cross-party voices concerned that Theresa May’s position on a customs union is wrong in principle. 

“Rather than downplay this issue, the Prime Minister should reconsider her position on a customs union and adjust her red lines.”