MPs will be able to vote for Britain to rejoin the EU customs union after Brexit without further legislation, a minister has revealed.
The surprise admission delighted pro-EU MPs, but will alarm Brexiteers who will view it as a back door to remaining within the trading rules, despite EU withdrawal.
Ken Clarke, the former Conservative Cabinet minister and leading anti-Brexit rebel, said he was “considerably reassured” by what the Government was proposing.
The admission came amid claims there is a majority in the Commons for staying in the customs union, because the fear of huge extra costs for businesses and chaos at Britain’s borders.
Mel Stride, a Treasury minister, revealed the small print of the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill, which is needed for the Government to levy customs duties on goods traded with the EU after Brexit.
He insisted the UK will leave the trade bloc when it withdraws from the EU in March next year, but acknowledged a clause in the legislation would allow it to re-enter.
“Clause 31 makes provision for the Government to enter into – or this country to enter into – a customs union with another territory,” Mr Stride said.
“That territory could be the existing customs union of the European Union after we have left the European Union; it could be another territory apart from that.”
MPs would simply have to approve a statutory instrument – a regulation, not fresh legislation – in order for that to happen, the minister added.
Theresa May has vowed the UK will leave the single market and the customs union, while conceding it must abide by their rules in the two-year transition period she is seeking after March 2019.
Businesses have repeatedly warned of their fears that leaving will bring an explosion in red tape, disruption to trade flows and huge queues at border points.
MPs were told the Taxation Bill allows a “standalone” customs regime to be set up, for the UK to charge duties on imported goods and for the Government to decide how customs declarations should be made.
During the debate, former Labour minister Chris Leslie said he would continue pushing his party’s frontbench to support remaining in the customs union.
And he said: “I happen to believe there’s a majority in this House of Commons for membership of the customs union. I have a little work to continue to persuade my own frontbench of this particular issue.
“I’ll try my best to do that because I think eventually they will recognise, not just for the transition period but for the longer-term being, part of the customs union is incredibly important for our economy.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies