ANALYSIS: As the cross-party Brexit talks end, the blame game between the Tories and Labour begins

Posted On: 
17th May 2019

After Jeremy Corbyn finally put the cross-party Brexit talks out of their misery today, the blame game between the Conservatives and Labour ramped up.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn
Credit: 
PA Images

Sources from both camps argued the other was too split over key issues to forge a workable deal, despite the party leaders insisting the discussions had been productive in some areas.

One Shadow Cabinet source told PoliticsHome that a Government leak during the process had damaged credibility, while a letter signed by Tory leadership hopefuls containing a thinly-veiled threat to unpick any agreement was the final nail in the coffin.

Six weeks have passed since the party leaders first got together to bash heads, including days of working groups looking at specific issues like workers' rights and environmental protections. The talks were first convened as a last resort for the Prime Minister, after she was defeated for a third time on her Brexit deal on 29 March. With a rump of Tory rebels still refusing to play ball and vote for the agreement, the PM figures the only way to get the deal passed was with Labour votes.

But critics who pointed out that any attempt at a compromise between the warring party leaders would be fruitless turned out to be correct. Donald Tusk told the UK no to waste its Brexit extension up to 31 October - but it appears the party leaders have done just that.

The main sticking point in the talks was the customs union, while the question of a second EU referendum hung over the proceedings like a bad smell. Labour wanted the Government to sign up to its plan of a full customs union with the EU, which Theresa May would not countenance, arguing it would leave the UK unable to strike free trade deals around the world. The Government argued that its own customs plan would provide the same benefits as the Labour proposal, but to no avail.

In his letter pulling the plug, Jeremy Corbyn said splits in the Government over the customs issue had made negotiations harder, with reports appearing in the press that International Trade Secretary Liam Fox would not countenance a full customs union with the bloc (indeed, it would leave him redundant). Other Cabinet ministers such as Jeremy Hunt and Liz Truss also went public with warnings about signing up to a customs union.

“I think there was never any intention to move on a customs union,” a Shadow Cabinet source said. “I think what really made life difficult was that they were arguing on their side between themselves.”

According to the Government, it was confusion over the Labour second referendum position that was harming the process. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer warned at the start of this week that any cross-party deal with the Tories would be voted down by 150 Labour members if it did not include a pledge for a referendum. His warning, of course, was aimed more at Jeremy Corbyn than it was at the Prime Minister.

A government source said: “It is clear and has been for the duration that there are fundamental splits in Labour, particularly on the subject of a second referendum, which breaks down to the choice of whether to honour the referendum or to hold a second referendum in order to reverse it.” A spokesman for Theresa May added: “It is clear that in relation to the opposition, they had significant issues in relation to a second referendum and that’s one of the reasons why we haven’t been able to make more progress.”

But a source close to Keir Starmer shot back: “Number 10 might want to have a word with Fox, Hunt, [Andrea] Leadsom and Truss who all made ‘strident’ comments about doing a deal with Labour on a customs union. Ultimately, this is a Prime Minister that can’t govern and can’t deliver.”

Despite things going well on workers' rights - with the Government even discussing draft legislation to embed the Labour demands into law - and some promising talk on environmental protections, the differences eventually brought the discussions to a standstill.

The Shadow Cabinet source said there were two issues that prompted the final decision from Corbyn. The first was the leak to the Sunday Times in the first week of May laying out what the PM was prepared to compromise on. The move prompted a furious response from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who said he could no longer trust the other side. Senior Labour figures saw the incident as preparation to blame the opposition if it refused to sign up to the terms.

With talks already on the rocks, an open letter from senior Tories, many of them tipped as future leadership contenders, shook the Labour party. The letter - signed by the likes of Boris Johnson, Gavin Williamson and Dominc Raab - warned the PM she would split the party if she struck a customs union deal with her opponents, and added: “No leader can bind his or her successor, so the deal would likely be at best temporary, at worst illusory.”

With the PM effectively firing the starting gun on her departure yesterday, Labour found itself unsure whether anything it signed up to would have any meaning at all. Jeremy Corbyn said in his letter to May: “As you have been setting out your decision to stand down and Cabinet ministers are competing to succeed you, the position of the government has become ever more unstable and its authority eroded.”

At a campaign event in Bristol, the PM hit back: “We haven’t been able to overcome the fact that there isn’t a common position in Labour about whether they want to deliver Brexit or hold a second referendum which could reverse it.”

The blame game will no doubt continue, but the end of the talks brings the curtain down on one of the more bizarre - and ultimately pointless - episodes in the Brexit saga.