LONDON — Ministers believe MPs could defeat the government in a crunch House of Commons vote expected in the coming weeks, designed to force the U.K. to join a customs union with the EU after Brexit.
Amendments to two upcoming pieces of Brexit legislation — one aimed at keeping the U.K. in the EU customs union, and the other aimed at binding May to negotiating a new customs union with the EU — have become the government’s biggest short-term domestic concern, one minister said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The second of the two amendments, attached to the government’s upcoming Trade Bill and backed by Conservative Brexit rebels Anna Soubry and Ken Clarke, is of most concern, as its support for “a” rather than “the” customs union is in line with the Labour party’s emerging position on the issue.
A number of Labour shadow cabinet members have in recent days reiterated the party’s support for a customs union, arguing the arrangement could help solve the problem of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn told delegates at the EEF manufacturers’ organization’s conference in London on Tuesday that “we have to have a customs union that makes sure we can continue … trade, particularly between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is key to it.”
The government has yet to announce when the Customs Bill and Trade Bill, to which the two amendments are attached, will return to the House of Commons for their report stage and third reading.
Leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom will lay out business for the week ahead on Thursday but MPs believe the government may delay the bills until after May’s anticipated speech setting out her vision for the future relationship with the EU, expected next week.
One senior Conservative MP said colleagues were waiting to see what commitments were in the speech, and in other Brexit speeches from ministers due next week, before deciding which amendments to back.
The minister said that despite the concern, until the Labour leadership came out in support for one of the amendments, the government could easily defeat them.
“They are a concern, but we have to wait and see what Labour does,” the minister said. “If Corbyn decides to back one of them then it’s a different ball game.”
One senior Labour MP said the issue could be explosive for the government. “It could be the end of May,” the MP said, pointing out that, if the government were to be forced into supporting a customs union, it would infuriate backbench Conservative Brexiteers who insist the U.K. must not be restricted in its ability to strike free trade agreements with non-EU countries, and have the numbers to force a vote of no confidence in May.
The Labour leadership will not make a final decision on how to whip its MPs on amendment votes until it is known when the bills will be returning to the House of Commons, a senior aide said.
But in a further sign of the importance being attached to a potential customs union vote, the chairs of the House of Commons Treasury and Home Affairs select committees, Conservative Brexit rebel Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Yvette Cooper, have jointly organized a briefing for MPs and peers from business and manufacturing leaders, including the Confederation of British Industry, which recently called for a post-Brexit customs union.
CBI Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn will address the cross-party gathering of MPs and peers on Wednesday morning in a House of Commons committee room, an aide to Cooper said.
“For manufacturing areas across the North and Midlands the customs union is really important in keeping the costs and burdens of trade low,” Cooper said ahead of the meeting. “The country and parliament may still be divided on other aspects of Brexit, but I think there would be a nationwide and parliamentary majority in favor of a good customs union deal.”
Morgan, who was instrumental within the group of Conservative MPs who rebelled against the government in December and forced a guarantee of a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit withdrawal agreement, said the government’s desire for “trade to be as frictionless as possible is right.”
But she added: “MPs need now to understand what that really means and that is why it is important their local businesses have a chance to share their thoughts with us in Westminster.”