Rebel Tory MPs could “change the course of the Brexit negotiations” if they back Labour amendments on the EU withdrawal bill, according to shadow Brexit minister, Sir Keir Starmer.
Starmer today told the BBC that avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland, a key concern in negotiations, requires “a customs union” and a “Single Market deal”, but rejected the so-called Norway model of remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA).
The EU withdrawal bill returns to the House of Commons on Tuesday, with votes due on amendments which would keep the UK in a customs union with the bloc, as well as ensuring that MPs have a final vote on the Brexit deal.
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The amendments could attract support from Conservative MPs who back retaining a closer relationship with the EU.
However, former Conservative home secretary Amber Rudd today wrote a joint article in the Sunday Telegraph with prominent pro-Brexit MP Iain Duncan Smith calling for their colleagues to back the government.
The bill is “not about competing visions of the future but about ensuring legal certainty at our point of departure”, they wrote.
The votes on the withdrawal bill come after a difficult week for the government, after reports that Brexit minister David Davis could resign if there was no firm end date on a “backstop” agreement with the EU to be used if longer-term trade negotiations fall through.
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Meanwhile, foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the issue of Northern Ireland was an example of “the tail wagging the dog”, and that it threatens the whole Brexit process.
The government currently plans to leave the customs union, but faces a dilemma over the future of the Northern Irish border. Prime Minister Theresa May has committed to no physical infrastructure at the border, but she also wants to leave the EU’s customs union, which would require checks on goods at the border or the possibility of fraud on a large scale.
Labour’s position calls for a customs union and a deal which tries to replicate some of the benefits of the Single Market, but without the current requirement for freedom of movement. Starmer today rejected continued membership of the EEA, saying it would still require infrastructure.
“It is totally incompatible with the solemn commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland,” Starmer said. “The Norway model works for Norway, I can see why people are attracted to it, but it won’t work for the United Kingdom.”
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