Tory Rebellion Grows in Strength as May Clings to Brexit Vision

Updated on
  • Eight Conservatives back amendment, enough to defeat May
  • Lawmakers want U.K. to stay in customs union, May doesn’t
EU Said to Deliver Draft Brexit Deal

Eight Conservative Party lawmakers have backed an amendment calling for the U.K. to keep close ties to the European Union after it leaves, an attempt to reverse Theresa May’s Brexit policy that could threaten her political survival.

The size of the rebellion is potentially enough to wipe out May’s slim working majority in the House of Commons. The lawmakers want to keep the U.K. in a customs union after Brexit and their number has risen in recent days since the amendment was first published. More could still add their names.

Theresa May

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

The government relies on a majority of 13 including the 10 lawmakers of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. If May were to lose the vote -- for which no date has yet been set -- on a central plank of her legislative program, it could set off a train of events that could topple her government, or at least force a rewrite of her policy.

The latest trouble for May comes as the European Union’s chief negotiator delivered some stern words for May’s negotiating stance in Brussels. Time is running out for differences to be bridged on the transition deal that businesses are desperate to pin down. She’s also under pressure to make clear exactly what kind of future trading relationship she wants with Europe -- and what she’s prepared to sacrifice to get it.

Every Vote Counts

A customs union is a distant second-best to staying in the single market for business, but would smooth trade with Europe and keep commerce tariff-free. May rejects it as hardline Brexit backers in her government are keen to strike new trade deals around the world, which wouldn’t be possible if the U.K. stays in a customs bloc.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared his support for a customs union this week, arguing it’s the best way to protect jobs and living standards, and the amendment already has the backing of several Labour lawmakers.  

But with a majority so small, every vote matters for the government, and some Labour lawmakers who back Brexit would support May. In the last tight vote, there were two Labour rebels. At least one more Labour member is also on record opposing a customs union. 

Dominic Grieve

Photographer: Rob Stothard/Getty Images

But more Tories are likely to sign the rebel amendment, including former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who led a successful rebellion at the end of last year. A widely respected establishment figure, his signature could bring others on board.

The amendment to the Trade Bill calls on the government to “take all necessary steps to implement an international trade agreement which enables the U.K. to participate after exit day in a customs union with the EU.” It is hard to see how a negotiating position could be written into law, or the government bound by this vote, but supporters of the amendment see it as an opportunity to show that there is parliamentary backing for a customs union.

Read more: How a ‘Customs Union’ Helps Businesses With Brexit

If they’re right, May could find herself stuck between the Parliamentary majority for close ties to the EU and the significant number of lawmakers in her own party -- at least 60 -- who want maximum distance. Which is why former Tory leader William Hague had warned Tory rebels earlier in the day against “threatening the very existence of a Tory government.” Writing in The Daily Telegraph he urged them against “setting off a chain of events that would never be forgiven.” Corbyn is a socialist who wants to re-write the rules of business and crank up taxes.

The government has put the vote off, refusing to say when the Trade Bill will return to Parliament.

Potential Outreach

Earlier, in a speech at Bloomberg’s European headquarters, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said he hoped to persuade Tory rebels to change their minds. The pound fell. May is giving a landmark Brexit speech on Friday, which will be watched for overtures to the rebels.

Liam Fox

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

“I hope that we will be able to persuade our colleagues as the prime minister sets out the case,” Fox said answering questions in London. “The approach that the prime minister has set out will actually lead to the greater prosperity and security of the people of this country.

He added: “And I hope that they will understand that the drawbacks of the customs union that I set out today would remarkably hinder this country in terms of the future economic opportunities that might otherwise be available.”

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