The Trade Bill is now at the centre of the Brexit shambles

23 February 2018

When Liam Fox introduced his Trade Bill last Autumn, he must have hoped it would clear parliament in a couple of months, and by now he would be busy mapping out the shape of Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the world. 

But it wasn’t to be. In the nick of time, Parliament woke up and the Trade Bill now stands at the centre of an unprecedented crisis, even by the standards of this Government. If the opposition unite with Tory rebels to support a customs union with the EU, then Theresa May’s strategy, hammered out at Chequers yesterday, will lie in tatters. 

An empty framework

The Trade Bill – along with its sibling the Customs Bill – says very little. That’s on purpose. Back in June we were promised a bill that would establish Britain as an independent trading power. The hope was that this would lay out a proper democratic process for negotiating and ratifying trade deals, scrutiny of the Secretary of State’s international visits, and a strategy for Britain’s role in the world. 

In fact, the Bill is nothing more than an empty framework which allows the Secretary of State (and only the Secretary of State) to negotiate new versions of around 40 deals we’re already part of, and to set up a body to oversee trade complaints. Parliament is side-lined by the bill, while Liam Fox is free to renegotiate deals at will without scrutiny. 

This is a problem. As Labour’s trade spokesperson Barry Gardiner says, allowing one man to dictate our trade policy unimpeded by parliament is more fitting to a ‘tinpot dictatorship’ than a modern European democracy. 

But particularly at this time, trade policy will affect so many aspects of post-Brexit Britain – what sort of food we eat, how we run our public services, and the role we play in the world. Remember, Fox is an ultra-free-trade Atlanticist who sees our future not as a European country but sitting somewhere between the 51st state of the USA and ‘Singapore on Thames’.  

That’s why, on so major a decision as the future of our trading relationships, the public and parliament must have a say. But despite strong opposition, the Trade Bill sailed through committee stage without amendment, and it started to look like MPs would waive through these extraordinary powers to Liam Fox. 

Having a say

Yesterday, the situation has changed. It is still far from certain that Parliament will grant itself proper powers to oversee trade deals, though an excellent amendment from Green MP Caroline Lucas would give MPs proper voting and scrutiny rights. But a change in Labour’s position towards a customs union with the EU means that the government could suffer a direct defeat on a fundamental issue, which would completely destroy Theresa May’s ability to keep her desperately shaky government together. 

Joining the customs union would necessitate Britain maintaining a very close trading relationship with the EU. In turn, that would mean a close relationship with EU regulations, standards and protections. In particular, it would make it impossible for Liam Fox to sign a dangerous trade deal with the US which could threaten food standards and public services like the NHS. 

There’s a problem with the customs union, though, which is that we’d lose power as a country to determine our own trade policy – that would be down to the member states of the EU. This worried the Labour frontbench and explains why they are arguing not for the customs union which currently exists, and includes Turkey for instance, but a customs union, which does not yet exist but would, Labour hope, allow us to not only be bound by European trade policy but also have a say in it. Whether that’s achievable remains to be seen. But it’s a sensible starting point for a negotiation.  

A compromise amendment has now been put down by Labour backbenchers and Tory rebels. That means it could pass. The threat is so great, that parliamentary discussion on the Trade Bill has been pushed back by at least two months while the government works out what to do.

Parliament has awoken

Unable to get agreement on trade through the Commons, parliamentary sovereignty appears to have been suspended on this crucial aspect of the Brexit process. But it can’t stay suspended forever. We need to keep up the pressure. Any decision on a customs union must be made by parliament, preferably after the public have had their voice heard. And whether in or out of a customs union, we must keep pushing to have a democratic say and proper scrutiny of trade deals. Caroline Lucas’s amendment (NC3) would achieve this. 

Parliament has awoken to wrestle control of trade away from the hands of Liam Fox. MPs have correctly seen that trade policy will be central to what kind of future Britain has - both domestically and internationally. That’s a major success. If we keep up the pressure, we can win this campaign.

Photo: Jay Allen/Downing St



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