Theresa May risks Tory anger with offer of fresh talks on Labour Brexit plan

Posted On: 
11th February 2019

Theresa May has risked angering Tory MPs by offering Jeremy Corbyn fresh talks on Labour's plans for a soft Brexit.

Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the Prime Minister last week.
PA Images

In a letter to the Labour leader responding to his offer of a compromise deal, the Prime Minister said she wanted to explore further Mr Corbyn's idea of a permanent customs union and close ties with the single market.

Mrs May also held out a further olive branch to Labour MPs by saying she was preparing to ask Parliament "whether it wishes to follow suit" every time the EU improves protections for workers or the environment.

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And she stopped short of rejecting outright any of Mr Corbyn's demands outlined in a letter last week - instead opening the door to new talks between the two sides "as soon as possible".

But her decision to leave the open the prospect of signing up to a permanent customs union risks fresh splits on the Tory benches.

Leading eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg said: "As the 2017 Conservative manifesto promised to leave the Customs Union it would be more consistent for the Prime Minister simply to rule one out."​

Jeremy Corbyn had signalled that his party could back the Prime Minister's Brexit deal if she agreed to a "permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union" with the bloc as well as "close alignment" with the EU's single market and "dynamic alignment" on rights and protections for workers and the environment.

Mrs May told the Labour leader she would be willing to discuss "the exact nature" of any alternative plan he had to avoid the backstop.

She said: "I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals? I can reassure you that securing frictionless trade in goods and agri-food products is one of our key negotiating objectives...

"The fundamental negotiating challenge here is the EU's position that completely frictionless trade is only possible if the UK stays in the single market. This would mean accepting free movement, which Labour's 2017 General Election manifesto made clear you do not support."

The Prime Minister has focused her efforts since her deal was rejected by Parliament on pressing the EU for changes to the controversial backstop plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, which Brexiteers fear will leave the UK permanent locked in the EU's orbit if triggered.

On Sunday Cabinet minister Liz Truss hinted that she could quit the Government if Mrs May accepted Labour's demand for a permanent customs union.

The Prime Minister's letter also makes clear that Brexit "should not be at the expense of workers' rights or environmental protections" and says ministers share Mr Corbyn's "ambition" on keeping close security ties with the EU after Britain leaves.

"Labour's support for this position going into the next phase will I hope send a powerful signal that the EU should reconsider its stance," she wrote.

"I look forward to our teams meeting as soon as possible."

But anti-Brexit campaigners heaped scorn on the latest exchange between the two leaders.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw of the People's Vote push for a second referendum said: "Strip away the warm words about co-operation, there is very little in this letter to suggest a deal with Labour can be struck because the Prime Minister once again rejects a customs union and offers no real guarantee on workers' rights.

"Indeed, the only guarantee we've got is that any Brexit deal will be so vague it will mean successive British governments going back and forth to Brussels trying to make sense of something that makes no sense for Britain.

"Theresa May’s letter merely confirms what we already know: she plans to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union without any clarity about what Brexit means. She admits MPs cannot be sure about the future relationship and that her own deal offers a spectrum of outcomes. That means there will be no closure if Brexit goes ahead, just more arguments and negotiations."