Former Tory ministers back UK staying in EU customs union

Call for ‘reality check’ on regulation of trade with EU from former attorney general

Conservative support for remaining in a customs union with the EU after Brexit indicates the strength of a growing rebellion on prime minister Theresa May’s backbenches. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Conservative support for remaining in a customs union with the EU after Brexit indicates the strength of a growing rebellion on prime minister Theresa May’s backbenches. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

A number of former Conservative ministers have voiced support for remaining in a customs union with the European Union after Brexit during a parliamentary debate that showed the strength of a growing rebellion on Theresa May’s backbenches.

Conservatives abstained on the non-binding motion in favour of customs union membership but pro-European Tories joined opposition MPs to speak in favour of it.

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve accused the government of adopting a blundering approach to Brexit which ignored the reality that new trade deals outside the EU could not compensate for the loss of single-market and customs-union membership.

“Why is it that the deputy ambassador of Japan has us all in and says: ‘You do realise that every Japanese company will be gone in 10 years’ time if they cannot have frictionless trade into the European Union?’ We are behaving in the most extraordinary and blinded fashion as we blunder around ignoring the realities. And, in any case, free-trade agreements come with strings attached,” he said.

“If you have a free-trade agreement, if you have multiple free-trade agreements, they will very quickly start to look like customs unions. That’s what happens when people get together. So this ‘customs union bad, somehow free-trade agreement good’ simply does not stack up. It is time for a reality check. In fact, we need more than a customs union because, as is also clearly obvious, we are not going to be able to trade without regulatory alignment.”

Single market

George Freeman, Ms May’s former policy chief, said many of his constituents who voted Leave said they were happy with the single market but objected to a political union. Luke Graham, a Conservative MP who won his seat in Ochil and South Perthshire last year, rejected the accusation that remaining in a customs union was a betrayal of the Brexit vote.

“None of our constituents voted to be poorer. None of our constituents wanted to have more barriers between ourselves and our international trading partners. We don’t mind the labels, we don’t mind the mechanism, but I know from my constituents they want to be able to have a customs system that they can rely on, that respects the United Kingdom’s integrity, but also allows them to prosper and be better off than they are today,” he said.

Conservative Brexiteer Hugo Swire said remaining in the customs union made no sense at a time when the EU’s share of global trade was shrinking. He said leaving it was a necessary step to restoring Britain’s global trading role.

“The government have set out to ensure that we are a truly global Britain. As we have heard, remaining inside a customs union with the EU would prevent the UK from committing to that agenda and striking lucrative free-trade agreements with countries across the world,” he said.

Veteran pro-European Conservative Ken Clarke poured scorn on the idea that lucrative new trade deals awaited Britain once it leaves the EU.

“The idea that some marvellous new global future with fantastic new trade deals is about to open up is hopeless. If someone can get the Americans to open up their public procurement to international competition and give up the ‘Buy America’ policy or to open the regulatory barriers that they have put in the way of professional and financial services, they will be a miraculous negotiator, because we could get nowhere when Obama was in power. I do not think that the present administration are offering us anything; they just want their beef to come here,” he said.