Customs, Trade and Brexit

I’ve been an MP for a little over three years and can honestly say that last week in Westminster was its most peculiar if not stimulating. I will try to summarise the twists and turns of a week which would put a script of “House of Cards” to shame.

There were two Bills to consider as part of the Brexit process - the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill and the Trade Bill. Both are considered essential to allow the UK post-Brexit to implement Value Added Tax and tariffs upon imports from third countries and to enable the government to negotiate new Free Trade deals with third countries with the new found freedoms of Brexit. After the Chequers agreement and Future Partnership White Paper, of which I am hugely critical, myself and others wondered whether the extents of powers available to Ministers in the Bills were too far-reaching, allowing too many executive powers to the government (commonly called Henry VIII powers) to do all manner of things, however unlikely, including re-joining the EU’s Customs Union and copying the entire EU VAT tax code.

It is our adherence to the EU’s VAT directives that has meant that we have the despised ‘Tampon Tax’ requiring VAT on sanitary products, and have to levy VAT on energy saving products. No sane, independent country would raise taxes on these and other products, but due to our EU membership, no matter what Parliament or the public thinks, the EU has dictated and we have to comply. It is wholly unlikely that the government would wish to re-join either of these EU structures given its statements, but the opportunity was there for excessive flexibility. And so, I awoke last Monday morning as a potential ‘rebel’  having advanced, with colleagues, four amendments to the Cross Border Trade Bill to take out the potential for the worst elements. Labour MPs, in the morning, would have voted with us, the government and many Conservative colleagues, upon the Party’s three line whip, would have voted against us. By lunchtime, the government had accepted our amendments, and so Labour would now be voting against us, purely out of the politics of opposition, no matter what the point at stake. Conservative colleagues, apart from the die-hard remainers would now be voting with us. The only group who remained unchanged throughout were myself and Brexit colleagues! Labour MPs would now be voting for the despised Tampon Tax despite being in stated opposition to it. You couldn’t make it up.

They say that you should not examine the manufacture of sausages or laws too closely. Last week highlighted that all too clearly, and I haven’t even explained what happened on Tuesday!

The Prime Minister has a difficult tightrope to walk on the issue of Brexit, and I truly feel for the difficulty of the position. We have the voters of the country holding a variety of views, a Cabinet, MPs, Party and Parliament similarly of differing minds; business groups with differing opinions and that is without the input of the intransigence of the EU. What a heady mix to weave together. However, there is only one group that really matters and it is the politicians who are irrelevant to the process. I have read articles stating that on Brexit the powerful will win. The powerful in this are the electorate -  the choice was presented, and an answer given. Does the Future Relationships White Paper, which seeks to continue our adherence to EU single market rules for goods – the so called “Common Rulebook”, and the “Facilitated Customs Arrangement” which seeks to introduce a new system of double tariffs and tax collection for remittance to the EU pass the ‘sniff test’ of Brexit with voters? It does not with me and I cannot support it in its current form. There are two questions that the electorate might pose – 1. Can we now do things as promised, after Brexit that we couldn’t do before?; 2. What do you mean the EU tells us we can’t do that, we thought we’d left?

I apologise for being so heavy on the machinations of Westminster in this week’s column. As we now move to summer recess, you can be sure my summer articles will concentrate solely on the issues of Thanet – perhaps agreement there will be easier to find.