May's letter to Corbyn offers 'very little' to assure Labour

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Photographs: PA.

Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Photographs: PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Theresa May has written to Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to win his support for her Brexit deal - but anti-Brexit campaigners say she offers "very little".

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The prime minister questioned Corbyn’s key call for the UK to remain in a customs union with Brussels but offered concessions in other areas and said she wanted talks between Labour and Tory teams “as soon as possible”.

Her offer came as Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay prepared for talks with European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier as the government stepped up efforts to secure changes to the Irish backstop measure in the Withdrawal Agreement.

In her letter to Corbyn, responding to the conditions for a Brexit deal set out by the Labour leader, the prime minister said she wanted the Tory and Labour teams to consider “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop.

In response to his demand for a customs union, May insisted her deal met many of the conditions he had set.

A letter addressed to leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn from Prime Minister Theresa May. Photograph: PA.A letter addressed to leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn from Prime Minister Theresa May. Photograph: PA.

She said the existing political declaration - the part of the Brexit deal setting out the goals for the future UK-EU relationship - “explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union - no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors and no checks on rules of origin”.

But she said it also recognises the development of the UK’s independent trade policy.

Corbyn’s demand is for a customs union that gives the UK a say on future trade deals the EU might strike - something Brussels appears unlikely to accept.

The prime minister 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?”

She also questioned whether the call for completely “frictionless” trade would mean reneging on Labour’s commitment to end free movement by requiring single market membership.

The prime minister has previously ruled out a customs union, which would restrict the UK’s ability to strike trade deals, and could face Cabinet resignations if she changed her position.

May rejected automatically following EU rules on workers’ rights and environmental protection but “in the interest of building support across the House” she said the government is prepared to commit to asking parliament if it wishes to follow suit if standards change.

In her response to the Labour leader’s letter setting out his conditions to support a Brexit deal, May said: “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.”

There appears little prospect of an imminent breakthrough with Brussels, and Mrs May might not bring her deal back for a decisive vote this month.

Ben Bradshaw MP, a leading supporter of People’s Vote, said May’s letter offered very little to address Labour concerns.

“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.

“As Keir Starmer, Tom Watson and John McDonnell have all made clear in recent days, if Labour’s proposals cannot proceed, the party has only one way forward which is to follow agreed conference policy and begin campaigning for a People’s Vote.”

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