Emily Thornberry sparks Labour Brexit confusion over customs union stance

Posted On: 
8th May 2018

Labour has been forced to insist its position on Brexit remains unchanged after frontbencher Emily Thornberry suggested the party was in favour of staying in the customs union.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary said Labour wants "to remain in the customs union"

Jeremy Corbyn has previously pledged to leave the tariff-free bloc and said the party will instead seek a "bespoke" new customs tie-up with the European Union after Britain leaves.

“Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland," the Labour leader said in February.

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But Shadow Foreign Secretary Ms Thornberry sowed confusion this morning when she told the Today Programme Labour did not want to leave the existing arrangement.

“What we want to do is we want to remain in the customs union," she said. "We don’t want any faffing around with any of the nonsense that the Government is coming up with in relation to alternatives to the customs union. We want to remain in the customs union."

But a Labour source told PoliticsHome that there had been no change of policy from the Opposition.

The source said: "Emily agrees with our policy which is to seek to negotiate a comprehensive UK-EU customs union, with the UK having a say over future trade deals and arrangements."

Former Labour leadership contender Owen Smith - who was sacked from Mr Corbyn's frontbench after breaking from party policy to call for a second referendum - seized on the apparent slip of the tongue by Ms Thornberry, saying it was the latest in a string of inconsistencies on Brexit from Labour frontbenchers.

He told the Daily Politics: "Barry Gardiner said things out of turn about Northern Ireland. I heard Emily saying on the radio only this morning that she was keen that we stay in 'the' customs union which I don't think is, strictly speaking, Labour party policy...

"And Diane Abbott wrote a letter to her constituents saying exactly what I said about the prospect of a second referendum being necessary at the end of it if we can't sort it out, in order to give people the right to decide what sort of a Brexit they want or indeed whether they want a Brexit at all. So we're not being entirely consistent."


Ms Thornberry's comments came amid a separate Labour row over the party's Brexit stance, with more than 40 peers this afternoon expected to defy Mr Corbyn to back a House of Lords amendment that seeks to get Britain to join the European Economic Area (EEA).

Campaigners hope the so-called "Norway option" of EEA membership would soften Brexit by granting Britain access to the single market. But critics warn it would require the UK to accept rules laid down by Brussels without any say in how they are drawn up.

Labour MPs including Chuka Umunna have urged the party to change its stance and back EEA membership, a position supported by the Corbyn-supporting TSSA union.

Speaking on Sky News this morning, Mr Umunna accused the Labour leadership of seeking to "collude with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ukip, [and] the Government on this".

He asked: "Is it actually going to work on the side of social justice tonight in the House of Lords?"

But Ms Thornberry told the Today programme that while she had "a great deal in common" with those pushing the Norway option, EEA membership would be unworkable for the UK.

"The Norwegian economy is very different to ours," she said. "We are the fifth largest economy in the world. We do need to have a British bespoke deal."