My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If there is one thing that business says time and again it is that it wants certainty. It is the idea that, even if one’s objectives do not go quite right, one has something else there that can provide that certainty for the future. That “backstop” of customs union membership would have provided that much needed certainty.
How can we describe the Government’s approach in the long-awaited White Paper? Well, “courageous” is the term that Sir Humphrey Appleby probably would have used. Others may describe it as fantasy. Nowhere else is that more obvious than in relation to what it describes as the facilitated customs arrangement. If we read through it, we see gobbledegook explanations that are so opaque that they could have been written by Sir Humphrey himself.
Just look at how the White Paper suggests we deal with imports from third countries arriving in the EU for onward transfer to the UK and vice versa. The Government say that the EU’s customs approach will be “mirrored” at the same time as we will be imposing our own tariffs and customs arrangements elsewhere. As far as I can see, this is entirely reliant on a non-existent track and trace system to verify origin and tariff application, but until that technology exists, we will need to check everything meticulously at the border to apply different tariffs and different rules to different things. Put together, that means that the UK is taking on a huge bureaucratic and systematic burden for every single item imported to, or transferring through, our ports and slowing down the movement of goods in the process and causing the very friction that we always say that we want to avoid. But now, after the last couple of days in this Chamber, the Government have managed to twist themselves into even more knots by kowtowing to the Brexit fanatics on their own Back Benches. Doing so has made the White Paper’s proposals, problematic as they were, even more unworkable.
Of course, we know that the motivation of at least some Conservative Members is to create a proposal so chaotic and so unreasonable that we crash out with no deal and fulfil some sort of long-held Eurosceptic fantasy project. That is why I do not believe that the Government’s suggested approach will work. Far better and far simpler to remain in a customs union with the European Union so that trade between the EU and the UK can be truly frictionless; so that there really is simplicity and maximum facilitation of goods arriving from third countries, with one easily understood set of external tariffs; so that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland; and so that we can continue to benefit from the trade deals that the EU has with 68 other countries, without having to renegotiate them.
We could have made the resolution of this whole thing a lot simpler if the Prime Minister had not said that single market membership was a red line in the first place. Were it not for the chaos and the confusion that the Government have created, we could, by now, be an awful lot further on than we are. That is why I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to listen to the voices of industry when they say that the only reliable way to achieve the frictionless trade that we need is to remain in a customs union with the European Union.