There should be no surprise that the House of Lords has been doing its worst to neuter the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill: I remind readers that I reported in this column on the 6th March 2017, my debate with Lord Butler, the former Cabinet Secretary, and Lord Lester one of our leading lawyers, before a City of London audience, when they argued against the motion that ‘the UK is leaving the EU’ and made it clear in their speeches that their Lordship’s House would do everything to stop it.
The Key question is however, what will the Commons do?
And the key issue upon which that question will focus is the EU customs union. The Lords have already amended the Withdrawal Bill to require the UK to remain within the customs union.
Will the Commons follow their lead?
Of course, to do so would be extraordinary given that 80% of us voted less than a year ago for political parties committed explicitly to leave the customs union (whatever they have decided subsequently).
Desire to stay is bizarre: it would require us to hand over the conduct of our trade policy to EU officials without any influence over their decision making, their priorities, or any ability to hold them to account for their conduct of it.
Any trade deals negotiated between the EU and other third countries would require us to open our markets on the terms negotiated but without reciprocal concessions for us.
It is the daftest of policies. Why on earth would anyone contemplate it?
The answer is simple: it is at least one way of scuppering BREXIT.
The customs union is the essential core of the EU. It was there from the foundation and long predates the internal market. If you like, think of it as the walls of Mordor, it protects the fortress from trade from the rest of the world with a common external tariff. Or think of it as the “one ring to rule them all…and in the darkness bind them” as It holds the EU together in one mercantilist relationship against free trade with the world.
Remaining within it would be a betrayal of ‘taking back control’ and all that we voted for in the referendum, but there is no arguing with its adherents. It is the nearest thing to a religious belief. To accept the will of the people would, for them, be like denying the existence of their god.
Do not despair, the battle is not lost yet, but it will be very tight indeed.
If we were to lose it however, who would be to blame?
Don’t blame the Lords, they have no power if overawed by the Commons.
So blame the Commons, but remember that it was the voters who determined its current composition less than a year ago.
If we did lose that vote, whatever advisers in in Number 10 may do, or however few ministers resign, I will certainly be one of those shedding tears into my beer.