Former perm secs and civil service chiefs vote against government on Brexit

House of Lords motion wins backing from all living ex-Cabinet secretaries and former FCO leaders

Inside the House of Lords Credit: PA

By Jim.Dunton

19 Apr 2018

Five former Cabinet secretaries, three ex-Foreign and Commonwealth perm secs and a selection of other one-time civil service leaders have voted to back a call to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU,  a move which could derail prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans.

The crossbench peers were among those supporting an amendment to the EU (withdrawal) Bill tabled by former FCO perm sec Lord John Kerr which was passed by 347 to 225 in a House of Lords debate yesterday.

The government said it would not accept the change, arguing that staying in the customs union would make the UK bound by the EU’s tariffs and in a worse trade position than. However the result will force the matter to be debated further in the House of Commons.


Among those in favour of the amendment were former Cabinet secretaries Lord Robert Armstrong, Lord Robin Butler, Lord Gus O’Donnell, Lord Andrew Turnbull, and Lord Richard Wilson.

Kerr’s two FCO successors who are members of the House of Lords – Lord Michael Jay and Lord Peter Ricketts – also backed the amendment, as did former Treasury perm sec Lord Nicholas Macpherson.

After the vote Macpherson wrote on Twitter that he was proud to have taken part in the vote and believed the outcome made it time for the government “to forge consensus to keep trade flowing freely”.

Support also came from former Department for Communities and Local Government perm sec and civil service head Lord Bob Kerslake, former Department for Education and Employment perm sec Lord Michael Bichard, and former Department of Health pem sec Lord Nigel Crisp. 


Proud to be part of huge Lords' majority for customs union with EU. Time for HMG to forge consensus to keep trade flowing freely. #freetrade

— Nick Macpherson (@nickmacpherson2) April 18, 2018


Introducing his amendment, Kerr said its purpose was a call for the government to “explore” the potential for a customs union, against the backdrop of concerns from industry over the impact of Brexit on trade. He said a customs union would also help resolve the question of Northern Ireland’s border with the Irish Republic.

Kerr added that the EU had indicated that if the UK altered its stance on a future customs union it would be prepared to reconsider its current negotiating stance of a “bare bones free trade offer with something on services to be determined”.

He told the house that negotiators would be able to discuss the possibilities of potentially more beneficial future relationships if a customs union were on the table.

“We do not know how far-reaching such improvements would be but, if we go on refusing to allow our negotiators to explore the idea of a customs union, we will never find out, and that in my view will be irresponsible – hence the wording of the amendment,” he said.

“I do not recall at the time of the referendum any debate about a customs union.”

Department for Exiting the European Union minister of state Lord Martin Callinan said that if the nation remained in the customs union with the EU it would have to provide preferential access to the UK market for countries that the EU agreed trade deals with, and would have less influence over our international trade policy than at present. 

“By leaving the customs union and establishing a new and ambitious customs arrangement with the EU, we will be able to forge new trade relationships with our partners around the world and maintain as frictionless trade as possible in goods between the UK and EU, providing a powerful and positive voice for free trade across the globe,” he said.

Callinan added that peers should not have “false hope” that the government would reflect on its stance on the customs union before the bill had its third reading.

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