For those Brexiteers worried the government may change its mind on leaving the customs union, David Davis’s appearance in front of a select committee gave reasons for reassurance – but also possibly some cause to worry.
The Brexit secretary was clear that he is sticking firmly to his guns on the issue. But can he – and the government – continue to do so under pressure from MPs who are seeking to keep Britain inside the customs union? Hilary Benn asked Davis what would happen if the vote in Parliament on the Brexit trade bill went against the government. Here’s what Davis had to say:
Benn: You have emphatically rejected remaining in a customs union, but when the trade bill returns to the house the house will vote on whether it wishes to adopt a different policy i.e. to remain in a customs union. If that’s carried, you are going to have to change your policy, aren’t you?
Davis: I’m not going to enter into hypotheticals on what the House may or may not do. I expect the government’s policy to be upheld.
Benn: But if it isn’t you’re going to have to respect it, aren’t you?
Davis: The government always respects parliament but I expect the government’s policy to be upheld.
What if parliament fails to live up to Davis’s expectations? Davis's statement here appears to suggest if they don't, then there is no backup plan so to speak. And given that Labour has now said it is in favour of staying in a customs union – and assuming the party doesn't change its mind again – it seems far from certain that Davis can afford to be so characteristically breezy.
But it is also true that Davis used his select committee appearance to make the case for why Britain must leave the customs union. While some characterise the government's position on this issue as an ideological one, and accuse ministers of being blind to the importance of sticking with the status quo trading arrangement with the EU, Davis made it clear that his view on this was grounded in a simple fact: for Britain, the direction of global trade is moving away from Europe:
‘We have gone from roughly 60 per cent of our trade being into the union versus 40 per cent to the rest of the world, to a position in a year or two’s time when that would be reversed. You mustn’t throw away 40 per cent but the 60 per cent is the big area where we have huge opportunities.’
This is an argument we are certain to hear more of over the coming months. It's also an argument that the government will need to really press on MPs if they hope to win the upcoming difficult vote on the customs union.
What's more – and reassuringly for Brexiteers – Davis's comments here mean that if the government does decide to change its mind on the issue, even if it is simply because Parliament told it to, the pressure will be on the government to explain why the 60 per cent of trade Britain does with the rest of the world is no longer its priority. Given the strong feelings the issue of a customs union carried with it, this will be no easy task.