Theresa May’s plan to pursue a customs union deal with the EU post-Brexit has provoked a revolt from high-level members of her cabinet. Boris Johnson has labelled the plans ‘crazy’ and stated it would create “a whole new web of bureaucracy”.
Despite the EU apparently being open to the arrangement and it being a solution to the Irish Border problem, the hard Brexiteers within the cabinet are not pleased with the plan. They see the attempt to make the transition out of the EU and trade with the EU easier as a bad move as it will mean the UK will not be completely separate from the EU. Despite Johnson’s criticisms the Brexiteers both in and outside the cabinet have yet to suggest a realistic solution of their own to the Irish Border problem.
Nonetheless, with the feud within the cabinet becoming public, Theresa May might see her position as PM threatened. The powerful Brexiteers may use the threat of a vote of no confidence to ensure May shelves the customs union idea.
Business secretary Greg Clark has stated anything other than a close customs arrangement would risk thousands of jobs. Chancellor Phillip Hammond is also a supporter of a customs union.
These developments follow the House of Lords arranging a vote on an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill which would keep the UK within the EEA. The Brexit committee also urged the government not to rule out EEA membership and said the UK should consider membership of EFTA after Brexit.
The goings on at Whitehall have also provoked action amongst Labour supporters. Keir Starmer has designed Labour’s Brexit policy to be just softer than the government’s. This move by Theresa May may bring the supporters of EEA membership within Labour Party finally out into the open. Stephen Kinnock MP wrote an opinion in the Guardian this morning supporting EEA membership. Many MPs and a large percentage of the membership support EEA membership and with a need to retain it’s Remain voting supporters it might now make electoral sense for Labour to back EEA membership.
However, with more socialist members of the party resistant to the single market Labour might be left with an identical Brexit policy to the government. Emily Thornberry has spoken out against EEA membership telling Labour members it will not work. She said a “British bespoke deal” was needed instead.
Nevertheless, Labour may become increasingly tempted to back EEA membership especially with the rise in support for the Liberal Democrats in the recent local elections.
Analysis from Iwan Doherty, Editor in Chief
This is now the second time Theresa May has copied Labour’s proposals on Brexit but the PM copying Keir Starmer’s work is not a bad thing. This is another short burst of realistic thinking from the government but our negotiators have really lacked creativity and we are paying the price for that.
Johnson is right. It may well limit our freedom to trade with outside nations, if negotiated badly, and create more bureaucracy but the Brexiteers have yet to make a single realistic suggestion of how to solve the problems we face as a nation. May needs to start making practical suggestions, or they will remain on the backfoot in negotiations that the EU has dominated so far.
A customs union negoiated properly that will allow us the freedom to strike trade deals with other nations but bide us to some EU regulation could be a very attractive option, if Davis and co can grind out such a deal in Brussels.
Whether the Brexiteers will allow May to pursue a customs union is another question. Without any ideas of their own, they would be left to diffuse the bomb that is Brexit with no tools and no clue and whilst they may hate the idea of a Remainer pursuing a moderate Brexit their own political survival might be important to them.
I fully expect a large faction of Labour to start supporting EEA membership, but Labour should be careful not to alienate voters outside of London who see freedom of movement as a key reason for their vote for Brexit.