Danger for May from all sides over customs union

PUBLISHED: 11:19 23 February 2018

Jeremy Hunt has revealed the government has agreed to quit the customs union

Jeremy Hunt has revealed the government has agreed to quit the customs union

PA Wire/PA Images

Jeremy Hunt has revealed Britain will quit the customs union putting the government on a collision course with Tory Brexit rebels.

The health secretary said the cabinet has agreed to pursue a Brexit policy which will put Britain outside a customs union with the European Union but would match Brussels rules in certain sectors in an attempt to achieve “frictionless” trade.

In a move which chimes of Boris Johnson’s “have our cake and eat it” comment, the cabinet appears to believe Brussels will be open to a pick and mix Brexit.

But the move presents an increased danger to Theresa May with shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry saying Labour now backs a customs union which would look “pretty much like” the current one after withdrawal.

Hunt, who was not present at the war cabinet meeting at Chequers, said ministers now agree that Britain must not be part of a customs union as it would stop free trade deals with other countries.

He told the Today programme: “If we were a part of the customs union we wouldn’t be able to negotiate trade deals independently with other countries and we wouldn’t have full sovereign control of our destiny as a nation.

“But what we want is frictionless trade and we want to find a different way – customs union is one way of getting frictionless trade but it’s not the only way – and what we’re saying is we want to achieve frictionless trade by agreement between two sovereign bodies – the United Kingdom and European Union.”

Tory Brexit rebel Anna Soubry, who has tabled the customs union amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, said she has cross-party support and called on Labour to back it fully, tweeting: “It would be in the national interest if the Government & official Opposition also backed it.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is to unveil a competing vision of how Brexit should work in what is being billed as a significant address on Monday.

And May is also facing pressure from the Brexiteers amid reports that EU migrants who arrive in the UK during any transition period will be allowed to stay permanently.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who chairs the European Research Group of backbench Tory Eurosceptics, said such a U-turn from the PM would be “unconscionable”.

He told Today: “Mrs May said when she was in China that she wasn’t going to do that and that people who came after we’d left would be subject to different conditions, which seems absolutely right.

“You’ve got to remember we are leaving the European Union on March 29 (2019), we will be out of the treaties on that day, we will not have any say in the rules that are made and therefore people who come after that day ought not to be allowed to have the full and permanent free movement rights.

“That would be quite wrong, and they will know the conditions on which they come, which is important, so it’s fair to people who come after that date.

“And I’d be astonished if Mrs May would make U-turn of that kind; she is a lady of great backbone and for her to kowtow to the European Union is I think unconscionable.”

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