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Brexit: Government sees off Conservative rebels to win vote on EU customs union

MPs narrowly vote down Remainer rebel amendment that would have forced Theresa May to drastically change her Brexit plan

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
,Joe Watts
Tuesday 17 July 2018 20:07 BST
Brexit vote: Government defeats EU customs union bid

Theresa May has narrowly avoided a humiliating Commons defeat on the customs union after another dramatic vote.

Twelve pro-EU Tories voted against the government by backing an amendment that would have kept the UK in a customs union with the EU if Ms May proves unable to guarantee frictionless trade through other means by next January.

However, ministers staved off a potential defeat as MPs voted by 307 to 301 against the amendment.

The crunch vote came minutes after Ms May suffered her first Commons defeat since December, on a motion that would keep the UK in the European Medicines Agency.

That raised the prospect of a further defeat on the customs union amendment, but the second rebellion was avoided after five Labour MPs sided with the government.

Reports suggested Julian Smith, the Tories’ chief whip, had faced down potential rebels by threatening to call a vote of no confidence in the government if the amendment was passed.

And the government was accused of dirty tricks as a Liberal Democrat MP claimed the Conservatives had breached a long-standing convention that sees MPs paired with each other if they are unable to vote.

Jo Swinson, who gave birth earlier this month, claimed she had been paired with Tory chairman Brandon Lewis. Under usual arrangements, Mr Lewis would not vote in order to negate the impact of Ms Swinson being unable to do so.

However, with the government fearing a defeat, Mr Lewis joined colleagues in the division lobbies to oppose the amendment.

A furious Ms Swinson wrote on Twitter: "Don't try any nonsense about a mistake - this is calculated, deliberate breaking of trust by government whips to win at all costs.

"Brandon abstained in afternoon divisions, but voted in the two crunch votes after 6pm. There's a word for it - cheating."

Facing a possible defeat, ministers had earlier offered to work with rebels on a compromise solution, but that was rejected by pro-EU Tories incensed that the prime minister had allowed Brexiteers to change the plans she agreed with ministers at Chequers.

The rebel amendment demanded what one supporter called a “safety net” in case the government’s Chequers plan, supposed to guarantee frictionless trade, falls apart.

Speaking in favour of the amendment during a heated debate, Conservative former chancellor Ken Clarke, said he was “astonished” that the government was fighting a proposal which he said was in line with Ms May’s own white paper on Brexit.

He suggested ministers should now “lie in a quiet, dark room” over the summer and “come back and tell us how exactly they do intend to negotiate these serious matters for the future of our country”.

Ex-cabinet minister Nicky Morgan, who tabled the amendment, said: “It is very clear that in this house there is a majority for a customs union to safeguard business and jobs and the financial security of our constituents in the future.”

With the government fearing a defeat, minister George Hollingbery spoke to the government chief whip Julian Smith during the debate, and offered the rebels a concession.

He said: “It is my intention to bring forward an amendment in the [Lords] that takes in the essence of [the proposal], but removes the defective elements relating to the customs union.

“The government amendment will restate our intention to establish a customs arrangement with the European Union.”

But Conservative MP for Wimbledon, Stephen Hammond, who also signed the amendment, refused. He hit back: “Let’s do this the other way round.

“I’ll make you a generous offer – why don’t you accept [the proposal] today and then amend it in the Lords.”

The debate served to highlight the on-going deep divisions within the Tory party over Brexit, and the impossible nature of Ms May’s challenge in pushing through a Brexit that will please everyone.

MP Sarah Woolaston calls for Brexit referendum to be re-runConservative former international trade minister Greg Hands said being in a customs union would place “massive restrictions on having an independent trade policy”.

“You cannot, if you are in a customs union, have your own WTO schedules,” he said.

Pro-EU Tories had planned to give Ms May breathing space to pursue her plan – even though they believed it would be rejected by Brussels – but the cave-in to the hardline European Research Group hardened its stance.

It was last week that the cabinet agreed its negotiating stance at Chequers, based on the UK collecting duties on behalf of the EU and entering into what Ms May called a Facilitated Customs Arrangement.

But following resignations from Boris Johnson and David Davis that plan was thrown up in the air late on Monday, when Theresa May accepted a series of changes demanded by pro-hard Brexit Tories.

She agreed to an amendment that would mean the UK can only collect EU tariffs, if Brussels agrees to collect them in return – something the EU will also certainly refuse to do.

A second Brexiteer amendment, that would stop the UK from joining the EU’s VAT regime – and, therefore, a customs union – was also accepted.

The concessions prompted claims from the anti-Brexit camps that the Chequers plan was “dead” and enraged pro-EU Tories who said the prime minister was dancing to the tune of the hardline European Research Group (ERG).

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