Brexiters bank on early Brexit showdown. It could backfire

by Luke Lythgoe | 24.05.2018

It looks like we may finally get a Brexit showdown. Theresa May is planning to bring her EU Withdrawal Bill – now heavily amended by the Lords – back to the House of Commons in early June.

The decision emerged as pressure from Tory Brexiters mounted on chief whip Julian Smith not to kick the parliamentary face-off into the long grass by delaying the Bill, according to The Sun. The European Reform Group, a collection of Brextremist Tory backbenchers, reportedly held a meeting last night described as “revolutionary” and “mutinous”.

But Brexiters’ insistence on bringing the battle forward could backfire. May will have to convince her pro-European MPs not to back the Lords’ amendments on critical issues, including customs and Northern Ireland, if she wants to keep her flagship Brexit legislation intact. If any amendments are passed, Brexiters could see all manner of soft-Brexit proposals adopted – such as staying in the customs union and even the single market.

There is Labour to consider too. Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to Northern Ireland today, during which he will repeat his opposition to a hard border on the island of Ireland, suggests his party is planning to make the government’s life difficult on this critical issue.

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Of course Corbyn’s current position – just staying in a customs union with the EU, not the single market – won’t prevent a hard border either. Both he and the prime minister keep missing the point on this.

May has instead attempted to square the Irish circle with a number of complex proposals. The latest is another transition period stretching to 2023, according to The Times. During this time the UK will stay under the EU’s customs rules and keep regulations on industrial goods aligned to the single market. The idea is to buy time for a new (but yet to be agreed) post-Brexit customs regime to be put in place, which will likely require new systems and advanced technical solutions.

The problem is that, even if May’s plans convince her mutinous MPs, the EU is unlikely to agree to them without further strings attached. Given that it doesn’t believe that any of the government’s long-term “solutions” to customs will be ready even by 2023, it is likely to insist that any “backstop” – to ensure that border controls don’t return in Ireland – stay indefinitely. No wonder Tory Brexiters worry about being stuck in permanent purgatory.

What’s more, this is all going to be very expensive. If May tried to extend the transition period, the EU would almost certainly push for the UK to continue contributing to its budget. If we lost our rebate – as we almost certainly would – that would be an extra £12 billion per year at the current rate. And even if the new systems eventually got up and running, the UK’s tax chief yesterday revealed that the Brexiters’ favoured “Max Fac” solution would cost £20 billion to business per year.

By bringing the Withdrawal Bill back to Parliament, all these complex home truths finally have to be confronted. Any semblance of an orderly Brexit will be in tatters. But there’s a way out. If the public don’t like what they see, they should get a People’s Vote on the final deal.

Edited by Quentin Peel