It is becoming an established feature of the Brexit negotiations that they are full of twists and turns which, whilst exciting enough for those plugged into the drama, probably don’t signify very much in the long term.
This week’s likely entry into this category is the news that the Government is leaving itself legislative wriggle-room to effectively replicate the Customs Union with the EU, even if we’re not a member. Much of the blame for this is being pinned on Philip Hammond, who having lost his battle to save our membership of the Customs Union has apparently decided to settle for a customs union.
Yet it seems unlikely that the Prime Minister is really abandoning one of the central pillars of her vision of a ‘clean Brexit’.
For starters, it isn’t as big a shift in policy as it might initially appear. Back at Lancaster House, one of Theresa May’s punchier speeches on the subject, she said:
“Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends.”
This was in the same speech that contained this passage:
“Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out. We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.”
So the ambition for some sort of customs relationship with Europe has always been part of the Government’s strategy, provided that it can be reconciled with the freedom to strike new trade deals with other countries.
May put her full weight behind the push for such freedoms when she set up the Department for International Trade. She will also be aware of the strength of feeling amongst party members on the subject and, perhaps most importantly, of the critical role that Brexiteer MPs – especially the well-organised European Research Group – are playing in keeping her administration afloat.
A final indicator of which way the wind is blowing is that ambitious men like Gavin Williamson and Jeremy Hunt, who probably have as good a read on the Government’s position as any, are choosing to send Brexiteer signals. In light of all that, this latest row over the Customs Union looks more like a Treasury rearguard action than a Government u-turn.