Pro-EU Tory Rebellion Grows Further as May Ever More Boxed In

(Bloomberg) -- There are now 10 Conservative Party lawmakers backing a rebel amendment calling for the U.K. to participate in a customs union following Brexit -- enough to defeat Prime Minister Theresa May in Parliament.

The number to publicly declare their support for the amendment increased by 2 since Tuesday. The respected former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who led a successful rebellion in December, may also add his name, potentially attracting others. The amendment to May’s Trade Bill also includes backers in the Labour and Liberal Democrat Parties.

There has no date set yet for the vote -- making it for now a theoretical numbers game. However it’s all happening against a backdrop of heightened tensions with the European Union presenting the U.K. with a draft divorce deal that May said no British prime minister could ever accept. The pound fell.

On paper, that number of rebels is enough to defeat May’s government, which has a working majority of 13 including support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has 10 lawmakers. The opposition Labour Party supports staying in a customs union with the EU allowing tariff-free trade between members, and has tabled a similar amendment. 

The amendment calls on the government to “take all necessary steps to implement an international trade agreement which enables the U.K. to participate after exit day in a customs union with the EU.” May has said she opposes joining a customs union with the EU after Brexit.

While it’s hard to see how a Brexit negotiating position could be written into law, or the government bound by this vote, supporters of the amendment see it as an opportunity to show that there is parliamentary backing for a customs union. Antoinette Sandbach, one of the Tories backing the amendment, said she didn’t see it as an act of rebellion.

“Our manifesto committed to U.K. to ‘a customs agreement,”’ Sandbach said in a text message. “The amendment is a way of ensuring that manifesto commitment is not ruled out unnecessarily and that we have a pragmatic approach to Brexit.”

Adding urgency to the question is the fact that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn ended months of ambiguity in his Brexit policy by saying that his party will broker a new customs union with the bloc after the split.

In December, Labour threw its weight behind an amendment to May’s EU Withdrawal Bill by Grieve, helping 12 Tory rebels defeat the government in order to ensure lawmakers get a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal the premier secures.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, suggested on Sunday that the same tactic may come into play with the Trade Bill.

“Whether it’s our amendments or the cross-bench amendments, crunch time is now coming for the prime minister because the majority of Parliament does not back her approach to a customs union,” Starmer said in a BBC TV interview. “The majority in Parliament needs to be heard and it will be heard sooner rather than later.”

The parliamentary math is complicated by a handful of Labour lawmakers who support a hard Brexit. The Tory rebels and the opposition were able to defeat the government in December because some of them were persuaded to abstain, though two -- Kate Hoey and Frank Field -- voted with the government.

Below are the 10 Tory lawmakers to have indicated support for the Trade Bill amendment:

  • Anna Soubry
  • Nicky Morgan
  • Sarah Wollaston
  • Jonathan Djanogly
  • Stephen Hammond
  • Antoinette Sandbach
  • Heidi Allen
  • Jeremy Lefroy
  • Robert Neill
  • Ken Clarke

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