MPs approve amendments to customs bill insisted on by hard Brexiteers
Former Remainer Anna Soubry says it is ‘the stuff of complete madness’ for the government to accept the amendments
British prime minister Theresa May giving a statement on the 2018 Nato Brussels summit in the House of Commons on Monday. Photograph: PA Wire
MPs have approved a number of amendments to a customs bill which hard Brexiteers on the Conservative tabled in protest against Theresa May’s Chequers proposal for a soft Brexit. The government accepted the amendments rather than risk a rebellion by the Brexiteers, who regard the Chequers plan as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum.
One of the amendments makes it unlawful for Northern Ireland to form a separate customs territory to the rest of the UK. Treasury minister Mel Stride said the government accepted the amendment because it reflected its policy on the Border backstop and its interpretation of the joint report agreed with the EU last December.
The EU’s backstop proposal would treat Northern Ireland as part of the EU customs union, but Britain has proposed that any backstop should apply to the UK as a whole.
The bill will now move to the Lords, where it is likely to be amended further, before returning to the Commons. During that process some of the amendments approved by MPs on Monday could be reversed.
The debate saw unusually sharp exchanges between Conservatives on different sides of the Brexit debate, with former Remainers accusing hard Brexiteers of malevolence in tabling their amendments. Anna Soubry said it was “the stuff of complete madness” for the government to accept the amendments.
“The only reason that the government has accepted these amendments is because it is frightened of somewhere in the region of 40 members of parliament – the hard, no deal Brexiteers who should have been seen off a long time ago and should be seen off.
“These are people who do not want a responsible Brexit, they want their version of Brexit – they don’t even represent the people who actually voted Leave. The consequences of this are grave, not just for our country but also for this party.”
Ms Soubry said that nobody voted Leave on the basis that “somebody with a gold-plated pension and inherited wealth” would take their job away. And she suggested that Jacob Rees-Mogg, who leads the European Research Group of hard Brexiteers, was running the country.
“One has to wonder who is in charge. Who is running Britain? Is it the prime minister or is it my hon friend the member for North East Somerset? I know where my money is at the moment.”
The debate came at the end of a feverish day at Westminster as Conservative MPs returned from their constituencies where many met deep hostility for the prime minister’s Chequers proposal for a soft Brexit. After a meeting with Mr Rees-Mogg, the government agreed to accept all four of the Brexiteer amendments.
Ms May rejected Labour’s charge that the amendments left her Chequers plan dead in the water. “I would not have gone through all the work that I did to ensure that we reached that agreement only to see it changed in some way through these bills.” .
Monday morning saw Scott Mann, a junior minister, resign over the Chequers plan, and former education secretary Justine Greening saying she also rejected it. Ms Greening, who backed Remain in the referendum, said the plan would satisfy nobody, and that any Brexit deal should be put to the people in a fresh referendum.
“The only solution is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians, away from the backroom deals, and give it back to the people,” she wrote in the Times.
Downing Street said it would never consider a second Brexit referendum under any circumstances.
As the temperature within the Conservative party continues to rise, the government will ask MPs to vote on Tuesday to start their summer recess on Thursday, five days earlier than planned.