How does Theresa May square the circle on the customs union

An agreement on the customs union is proving quite the headache for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has consistently reiterated that when the Britain leaves the European Union, it will leave both the single market and the customs union. However, it is becoming clear that things may not be that simple!

Firstly, there is the House of Lords. The House of Lords has already inflicted a crushing defeat on the Government over the customs union and shows no sign of relenting. Additionally, the Commons has approved a non-binding motion saying the UK should stay in the customs union after Brexit. This motion will have no impact on the Government, but with 10 Conservative MPs having already put their name to a pro-customs union amendment, the Government doesn’t have the numbers to maintain their current position.

Reportedly, Theresa May is not overly concerned with these developments. It was leaked that the Prime Minister and her top team would not be “crying into their beer” if Parliament forced their hand. This drew an angry response from Conservative Brexiteers who warned the Prime Minister, should she follow this course of action she would face a vote of no confidence. Furthermore, David Davis and Boris Johnson have indicated they would resign should Britain stay in the customs union.

Then, there is then the small matter of Northern Ireland. Supporters of the customs union believe staying in the union is the best way to avoid a hard border between Northern and Southern Ireland. However, the DUP have firmly rejected any such proposals and have stated they would be willing to bring down the Government should Northern Ireland be treated differently to the rest of the UK.

So what is the solution? Well, that is far from clear. Should Theresa May back down and advocate staying in the customs union, there is a strong chance that will be the end of her premiership. However, if she sticks to her current position, then Parliament looks likely to defeat her. The most likely option appears to be to link the vote to a motion of confidence in the Prime Minister and the Government. This, though is not without it pitfalls and is a direction Number 10 appears unwilling to take.

We are in unchartered territory here and the reality is this could simply come down to who backs down first. Who would be Prime Minister?

Article by Mike Hough

Photograph: The Huffington Post

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