Brexit: Tories in turmoil

It is quite possible the UK could remain in the customs union long after the two-year transition period expires

 

From the outset, the Brexit talks have been hobbled by a fact that would undermine any negotiation: one side has no idea what it wants, much less how it wants to achieve it. So far, through a mixture of constructive ambiguity and quiet British back-pedalling, the talks have managed to stumble on. But now, as discussions begin on the future relationship, the room for evasion is running out.

The latest British psychodrama concerns future customs arrangements. Alarmed by Theresa May’s refusal to rule out involvement in a customs union when the question arose during her recent visit to China, Brexiteers in the Conservative Party proceeded to ratchet up pressure, culminating in reports that they were preparing a putsch against their lame-duck leader and that plans were afoot to install a “dream team” of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg at the head of government. But by revealing the poverty of the alternatives to May, the would-be plotters may have bought the prime minister time.

It is quite possible that the UK could remain in the customs union long after the two-year transition expires

The shambles within the Tory party risks overshadowing a high-stakes moment. The nature of the future customs arrangements will affect economic life in Britain for many years. It will also determine whether there is to be a hard Border in Ireland, with all the dangers that would entail. Although it cannot be presumed that the British government is a rational actor – it has already taken decisions that are not in the best interests of its people – some encouragement can be taken from the fact that London has shown itself ready to fold on nearly all its key positions.

Moreover, there may be a parliamentary majority in favour of customs union membership, while Whitehall clearly has no idea what it would replace the customs union with. Given that the government’s own economic impact assessment advises against leaving the customs bloc before it has lined up new third-country trade deals – which could take years – it is quite possible that the UK could remain in the customs union long after the two-year transition expires. The longer it stays in, the less likely its departure becomes.

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