The Express: The PM has a route to a real Brexit but must avoid any customs union

Last week’s votes in the Commons were good news for the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU. Amendments allowing an arbitrary group of MPs to seize control of the Parliamentary timetable and force the Government to extend Article 50 were roundly defeated.

Better still, by agreeing to Sir Graham Brady’s amendment requiring “the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements”, MPs have given the Government a firm mandate to return to Brussels, reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and amend it in a manner acceptable to Parliament. President Tusk offered such “alternative arrangements” in March 2018 when he proposed a wide-ranging, zero-tariff trade agreement. That deal foundered on the border question, but the Government can now return to it with knowledge that existing techniques and administrative processes can resolve those issues. This approach is laid out in “A Better Deal” which my colleagues including Steve Baker, Kit Malthouse and Nicky Morgan have come together to agree.

Their view is endorsed by the European professional customs body, CLECAT, who recommend procedures based on intelligence and risk management available in current EU law.

These are already used to manage the existing border – for tax, currency, excise and security – so form the foundation for continued seamless trade.

We can then immediately start negotiating an optimal Free Trade Agreement without the need for the universally derided Backstop.

This is the route the Prime Minister must pursue.

The Prime Minister must not use Tuesday’s vote to keep us in the Customs Union or a disguised variation thereof, as the Labour leadership suggests.

This would be a clear betrayal of the referendum result, tying the UK to EU trade policy with potentially no say in its direction, and a contradiction of the 2017 Conservative Manifesto.

The Prime Minister has herself ruled out Customs Union membership more than 20 times, including in the Commons.

Critics will ask: what if the EU refuses?

What if it is unwilling to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement?

Will we than “crash out” as the catastrophising Remainers suggest?

No.

The proposals which my colleagues have given the Prime Minister account for that eventuality.

The UK will continue to offer its “Plan A”, but will act to ensure that trade is not disrupted, with or without a Withdrawal Agreement on March 30.

Indeed, the best way to guarantee no “no deal” is by preparing fully to leave on WTO terms.

That is why I welcome the cancellation of the February recess, allowing Parliament to pass all the necessary legislation.

“No deal” on March 30 is not an end state.

Under Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, so long as the UK and EU agree to an FTA and notify the WTO of a sufficiently detailed plan and schedule for the FTA as soon as possible, we could maintain our current zero-tariff, zero-quantitative restrictions arrangements while the new deal is negotiated.

As Nicky Morgan has said, although this approach is not optimal, “it would allow time for both parties to prepare properly for WTO terms, but also provide a period in which the parties could obviate this outcome by negotiating a mutually beneficial future relationship.”

With this fresh attitude and a fresh team – which should include Julian Braithwaite, the UK’s Permanent Representative to the WTO, and Crawford Falconer, the Government’s Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser – the Prime Minister can play the strong hand given to her by Parliament and negotiate something new.

These approaches alleviate the risk of high tariffs, minimise the disruption of “no deal” and, crucially, deliver Brexit on time and in full.

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