The sooner May admits Britain will stay in the customs union the better

Polly Toynbee
‘The 123-vote defeat for the government in the House of Lords was far greater than expected.’ Photograph: PA

Did Brexit seem to slip out of sight, forgotten amid Syrian bombing, plastic-straw banning or the shaming Windrush scandal? It’s back from Easter with a roar, as the Lords on Wednesday delivered a walloping vote supporting the customs union.

The 123-vote defeat for the government was far greater than expected, backed as it was by 24 Tory peers, several of whom were former ministers. There are five more days of Lords Brexit debate on the withdrawal bill, including defining a “meaningful vote” on the final deal, so expect more fireworks.

The Lords’ fiercest Brexiters warn against – or aim to foment – a constitutional crisis, as Lord Forsyth accused them of “putting peers against the people”. When the Lords’ amendments go back to the Commons, a probable 10 Tory MPs may back them on the customs union – Dominic Grieve is reportedly confident.

This is crunch time. As both houses begin to engage in the real battle, this becomes the greatest constitutional risk of our lifetime. Until now, many MPs have tiptoed a fine line between the people’s will and protecting their country’s future. Do MPs take their lead from a one-off referendum or their duty to defend the nation from the clear and present danger of a brutal break with our vital trading partners? The time is short: those many Tory MPs who well know the madness of no deal or a hard deal, yet fear their constituents’ wrath, face that dilemma right now, in public, with nowhere to hide. This is when being an MP gets tough, separating those in craven fear of their electorates from Burkian believers in a higher duty.

Keir Starmer this morning sounded confident on the Today programme that enough Tory MPs will vote to stay in the customs union. People didn’t vote on how to leave the EU, he said. Theresa May and David Davis both pledged the UK would keep “the exact same benefits” as it leaves – and that means, at the very least, staying in the customs union. Every week that passes reveals new impossibilities in leaving it, as one industry after another discovers how the nightmarish obstacles of border checks and tariffs will wreck their businesses.

As for trade, by now any half-awake MP who is not sticking their fingers in their ears to block inconvenient facts will have understood what leaving the customs union means. As Starmer points out in his calmly reasoned style, leaving the customs union results not just in the loss of EU trade, but also the loss of 37 trade agreements with 67 countries outside Europe. What kind of fantasy imagines our one country alone can replicate, let alone improve on, those deals? Just one example: Lord Bilimoria last night told the Lords he had talked to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and trade with the UK, minimal now, is a very low priority.

By the EU summit in June, the most tendentious issues must be resolved, with none tougher than the question of the Irish border. One Tory commentator recently suggested drones could conduct checks from the air to avoid the pulling down of customs-post cameras by outraged border-dwellers. But the more bizarre the solutions proposed, the more blindingly obvious it has become that the whole of the UK staying in the customs union is the only viable option.

Donald Tusk warns there will be no deal, no transition, without an Irish solution. The deal will have to pass the European parliament, whose largest group is led by Manfred Weber, who this week declared: “We are all Irish”, his stout solidarity echoing President Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” as he stood by the Berlin wall. Our European neighbours have noted the abominable treatment of the Windrush generation, as they decide whether to trust Theresa May’s “hostile environment” Home Office to treat their 3.5 million citizens in the UK well. She and her “nasty party” have truly turned us into a “nasty country” in their eyes.

May’s folly in laying out red lines becomes clearer with each retreat she is forced to make. Had she started out on the path to Brexit with a pragmatic openness, she would have saved herself one humiliation after another. Her whips will be out arm-twisting and counting their vote. She would be well advised to get her retreat in first this time, and concede to staying in the customs union before the Commons vote.

• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist

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