Jeremy Corbyn

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Jeremy Corbyn wants a permanent UK-wide customs union

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Jeremy Corbyn

Conciliatory tone sparks Brexiteer fears that PM might soften her position to push deal through Parliament

In Depth

Monday, February 11, 2019 – 12:54pm

Theresa May has responded to Jeremy Corbyn’s five demands for a Brexit deal, with the prime minister welcoming more talks with the Labour Party but querying his call for the UK to remain in the customs union.

The Labour leader wrote to May last week saying he would back her EU withdrawal deal if she made five legally binding commitments, including a permanent UK-wide customs union.

The PM’s unusually conciliatory response has sparked concern among Tory Eurosceptics that she might soften her position to secure the opposition party’s backing in Parliament.

Here are some of the key lines and how they have been interpreted.

The vague customs union rejection

“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?”

May’s failure to explicitly rule out the prospect of the UK staying in a customs union “alarmed Tory Eurosceptics, who fear the prime minister ​could ultimately change tack”, says The Daily Telegraph.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss hinted she would resign if the UK stayed in a customs union, while backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg said May should have ruled out the idea. Meanwhile, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson warned the PM not to bow down in the face of Corbyn’s attempt to “frustrate Brexit very largely”.

In response, a No. 10 source said: “It is nonsense to suggest the letter leaves the door open to his customs union idea. We are not considering it. We must have an independent trade policy.”

The second referendum jibe

“It is good to see that we agree that the UK should leave the European Union with a deal and that the urgent task at hand is to find a deal that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, can command support in Parliament and can be negotiated with the EU – not to seek an election or second referendum.”

May appears to be agreeing with Corbyn on the way forward for Brexit, but also highlights the fact that he did not mention a second EU referendum in his original letter.

Sky News says her subtle “jibe” is “likely to rile Labour MPs and members”, as pro-Remain backbenchers were hoping to persuade the leadership to unequivocally back a Final Say referendum.

The olive branch

“We have also made commitments on workers’ rights and environmental protections and we are examining opportunities to provide further financial support to communities that feel left behind.”

The prime minister insisted existing rights for workers will be protected, and pointed out that the Government already supports participation in EU programmes covering areas such as environmental protections. May dismissed the call for full alignment with the EU but said that a Commons vote could be held every time they changed.

The Daily Mirror described the move as an “olive branch as she desperately seeks backing for her pact after its crushing Commons defeat last month”.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart told BBC Breakfast: “What she is saying is that we have a lot if common ground, a lot more common ground perhaps than people have acknowledged, on things like environmental protections, workers’ rights, making sure that we get investment into areas of the country which haven’t done as well out of the last few years as other parts of the country.”

He added: “The maths suggest that to get this through we’re going to need support from all around the house.”

Running down the clock

“I hope you will therefore agree with me that seeking alternative arrangements to the current backstop is a necessary step to finding a deal that can command support in Parliament. One of the things I would like our teams to discuss is the exact nature of those alternative arrangements.”

May welcomed more talks with Labour, particularly on possible alternatives to the Irish backstop, although some commentators claim she is simply trying to “run down the clock”.

“The Tory leader is set to deny MPs a fresh ‘meaningful vote’ until next month – edging closer to the March 29 withdrawal deadline,” says the Mirror.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has accused May of “pretending to make progress while actually running the clock down” so that she can offer MPs a “binary choice”: her deal or no deal.

Starmer told The Sunday Times that Labour is preparing to introduce an amendment to force her to put her deal before Parliament again by 26 February.

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