Brexiteers’ Customs Bill amendments considered by government


Passengers going through customs checks at Portsmouth.

A group of Conservative MPs is seeking to change the government’s Customs Bill in what is being described as a “show of strength” by Brexiteers.

A government source said ministers were set to accept all four amendments tabled by MPs unhappy at the PM’s Chequers plan.

The source insisted this did not mean any government policies had to change.

If the government does accept the amendments it would avert the possibility of a defeat later.

One of the amendments could stop the UK from collecting tariffs for the EU, part of the PM’s Chequers plan.

Another could rule out the EU’s “backstop” on customs.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and Parliament is considering a number of new laws needed to prepare for this and for life after the end of a proposed transition period, which is scheduled to last up to December 2020.

The tariff plan is a key part of Theresa May’s proposal for a free trade zone for goods moving between the UK and the EU, underpinned by a “common rule book”, after the UK leaves.

This negotiating position, agreed by the cabinet at Chequers, has angered many Tory MPs and they were set to show their displeasure by trying to amend the Taxation (Cross Border Trade) Bill, known as the Customs Bill.

As well as calling or the UK not to collect tariffs on goods bound for the EU unless there are reciprocal arrangements in place across the continent, the amendments would rule out a border in the Irish sea, ensure the UK is out of the EU’s VAT regime, and require new legislation if the government wants to form a customs union with the EU.

As well as amendments, MPs are also due to vote on the legislation at its final parliamentary stage later – and it would only take a handful of Tory MPs to side with them for the bill to fall.

Asked whether the government was set to back down in order to avert a potential rebellion, Business Secretary Greg Clark emphasised the importance of getting the legislation in place.

“The amendments are to a bill that is designed to prepare for the world after Brexit, to be able to establish a new customs regime that will be necessary,” he said.

“So I would hope and expect that those of my colleagues that want to get on with Brexit would recognise that this Bill is essential.”

The amendments are backed by the European Research Group of MPs, whose chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has insisted they want to force Mrs May to change course rather than topple the prime minister.

He has said they are designed to:

  • Enshrine in law the government’s commitment that Northern Ireland should be treated the same way as the rest of the country and not become a separate customs territory
  • Ensure reciprocity of customs collections, treating the UK and EU as equals
  • Enshrine in law the UK’s commitments that it will not be part of the EU’s harmonised VAT regime
  • Require any new customs union with the EU only come into force if passed by Parliament through primary, rather than, secondary legislation

Two of them had been backed by former Brexit Secretary David Davis, who quit his post last week, and Mr Davis could speak during the Commons debate, expected to start after 17:00 BST – which would be his first Parliamentary intervention since his departure a week ago.

But he said he still backed Theresa May, telling reporters as he left his London home that “my name’s not Geoffrey Howe” – a reference to the late Conservative politician whose barbed criticisms of Margaret Thatcher during his resignation speech in 1990 paved the way for her subsequent downfall.

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Mrs May is facing dissent both from Conservative MPs who voted to leave and remain in the 2016 referendum over her blueprint for the UK’s future relations with the EU.

Scott Mann became the latest Tory MP to stand down as a ministerial aide to the Treasury in protest at the PM’s plan, following Robert Courts who did the same on Sunday.

Former education secretary Justine Greening said the plan was the “worst of both worlds” as she became the most senior Tory politician to call for another referendum on the final deal to break the current “deadlock”.

Mr Clark, the business secretary, said he disagreed with his colleague and believed the Chequers plan was the best way forward.

Urging the EU to respond positively to the UK’s proposals, he said an agreement this autumn, if it was backed by Parliament, would bring “certainty for working people right across the country”.