Helen Hayes Labour, Dulwich and West Norwood 3:48 pm, 26th April 2018

The referendum on 23 June 2016 set out one high-level question: should the United Kingdom remain in the European Union, or should the United Kingdom leave the European Union? The referendum campaign covered many issues, but the EU customs union was not a mainstream issue for debate. It was not articulated as a defining, essential feature of Brexit and it was not a motivating reason for people to vote leave. The customs union was a phrase that comparatively few people knew until after the referendum.

Following the referendum result, it was the responsibility of the Prime Minister to lead and to articulate how the Government would respond to the result of the EU referendum and how they would seek to negotiate Brexit in the best interests of the UK economy. Instead, the Prime Minister’s only articulation of the shape and content of Brexit for several months after the referendum was “Brexit means Brexit.” In the utter vacuum of content that this left, hard-line Brexiteers and their supporters in the press peddled the myth that leaving the customs union was a talismanic and essential feature of the Brexit that the British public had narrowly voted in favour of. This was never the case. Membership of the customs union was barely debated during the referendum campaign and it was certainly not on the ballot paper. Membership of the customs union is not the same as membership of the EU. It has been misrepresented as such by the hard Brexiteer ideologues, whose hatred of the EU runs so deep that they cannot bear the thought of any formal association with our friends and neighbours in the EU.

The UK’s current annual goods trade with the customs union is valued at £466 billion. Leaving the customs union could cost the UK an estimated £25 billion every year until 2030. The cost of new tariffs alone could be at least £4.5 billion a year for UK exporters. Analysis by HMRC suggests that new customs checks could increase the cost of imported goods to UK customers by up to 24 per cent. Supporters of a hard Brexit claim that leaving the customs union will open up opportunities for the UK to negotiate trade agreements with many other countries. This is like promising to replace two birds in the hand with one in the bush. The Government’s own analysis shows that they believe that new free trade deals will add between 0.2pc and 0.7pc to UK GDP, compared to a 5% hit from leaving the single market.

Membership of the Customs Union delivers for the UK now. Future trade deals will take a minimum of three to five years to negotiate, and their terms are by no means guaranteed. Their impact on the UK economy will be much smaller than the current benefits of the customs union, and negotiations cannot even begin until we have left the EU. This is what a cliff-edge Brexit looks like.

There is no time for me to consider the impact on the Northern Irish border, to which many Members have already referred, so I will bring my remarks to a close. My constituents in Dulwich and West Norwood did not vote for Brexit. But even in the areas of the UK that voted to leave, nobody voted explicitly to leave the customs union. Leaving the customs union was not a Vote Leave pledge, and damaging the UK economy was not a Vote Leave pledge. Some 57pc of the British public—a bigger majority than voted to leave the EU in the first place—support staying in the customs union. The Prime Minister’s intransigent commitment to leaving the customs union is therefore unfathomable.

The Prime Minister is not negotiating in the national interest; she is simply losing a negotiation with her own Back Benchers. In doing so, she is putting our jobs, businesses and peace in Northern Ireland at risk. This is nothing short of reckless. I call on Conservative Members to show the leadership in the national interest that the Prime Minister seems to lack, and to vote today to remain in the customs union with the EU.

(Customs and Borders – in the House of Commons at 12:13 pm on 26th April 2018. Source: TheyWorkForYou)

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