Labour Will Work With Tory Rebels to Fight for EU Customs Union

(Bloomberg) -- The Labour Party has given its clearest signal yet that it will join forces with rebel Tories in an attempt to defeat Theresa May on Brexit, threatening a political crisis that could bring down her government.

Keir Starmer, Labour’s chief Brexit spokesman, indicated his party will vote to change one of the prime minister’s draft laws as early as next month to force her to keep the U.K. tied to European Union rules for trade.

May has promised to take Britain out of the EU’s customs union in order to develop an independent trade policy and strike deals with countries such as the U.S. and Australia. Leaving the customs union is therefore critical to her vision for Brexit and to her fragile political authority.

“It’s obvious that there’s a growing chorus of cross-party voices that think the prime minister has got it wrong on a customs union,” Starmer said in an interview in Bloomberg’s London office. “This question of the customs union is coming to a head.”

Breaking free from EU trade rules is a key demand of Brexit supporters including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who’s seen as a rival for May’s job. Other hardline Brexit-backing Tories have signaled they could withdraw their support for her leadership if she fails to take Britain out of the customs union, as she has promised to do.

Customs Union

On the opposing side, Labour, business leaders and pro-EU Tories want the country to stay in the customs union. They say British industry will suffer, jobs will be lost, and the prospect of border checks on goods crossing the frontier with Ireland could even undermine peace.

The question will come to a crunch when members of Parliament debate the Trade Bill, which is expected next month. Anna Soubry, a Conservative who opposes Brexit, has proposed adding a new clause to the legislation. That would require 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.”

Starmer said his party could back Soubry’s amendment -- though he said no decision has been taken -- as the text “reflects the position” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has set out.

“The question of a customs union is going to come to a vote one way or another, and therefore it is going to come to a crunch,” Starmer said. “Whether it’s in this amendment or that amendment or in which bill is no longer really a relevant question.”

Whipped

Starmer pointed out that Labour members of Parliament were whipped last December to vote for another rebel Tory amendment on giving the House of Commons a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal. The result was that May suffered her first major defeat on Brexit policy in Parliament.

“We have said we will work across the House on important amendments, the meaningful vote was one of them, customs union will be another,” Starmer said.

Labour is also targeting another amendment that Starmer said will be key to restricting May’s ability to force her vision of a clean split from the EU on Parliament. When the Commons is given a vote on the final Brexit deal -- which could come in October -- Starmer wants the freedom to be able to send May back to the negotiating table to get better terms.

At the moment, May says Members of Parliament will be given a stark choice: accept her deal as it stands or leave the EU without any agreement at all. Starmer said “a lot” of parliamentarians will support the move to oppose May’s plan and ensure that the House of Commons can direct her to return to the negotiating table, if necessary.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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