Can Jeremy Corbyn’s big Brexit speech be classed as a success? It really depends on who you think it was aimed at. Unsurprisingly the softening of Labour’s Brexit stance has been welcomed by the party’s Remain-backing membership. On top of that, the Labour leader managed to please big business – for a change. Corbyn’s announcement that Labour would back the UK staying in ‘a’ customs union with the EU post-Brexit has been praised by the Institute of Directiors while the CBI say the policy would ‘put jobs and living standards first’.
However, sceptics argue that the target audience for the speech was actually the Conservative party. With Anna Soubry tabling an amendment to the trade bill calling for the UK to form ‘a’ customs union, Labour’s support on the issue means that Theresa May could now face defeat. The government is so worried about it that that the vote has been delayed and there’s talk that they may make it into a confidence vote in order to coerce Remain-backing Tories to play ball. Are these Tories really prepared to risk Prime Minister Corbyn or a general election with their party in total disarray for the sake of ‘a customs union’ with the EU?
But it’s here that things start to look a little bit less successful for the Labour leader. In the speech today, Corbyn issued a cross-party appeal to MPs ‘prepared to put the people’s interests before ideological fantasies’ and join Labour in ‘supporting the option of a new UK customs union with the EU, that would give us a say in future trade deals’. This pitch was clearly aimed at Remain rebels like Nicky Morgan, Sarah Wollaston and Antoinette Sandbach. Yet it’s notable that this afternoon there has been a softening of the rhetoric by some Remain-backing Conservatives. Appearing on the Daily Politics, Stephen Hammond said it was too soon to say how he would vote and pointed to it being ‘a process’. Meanwhile, Hammond’s Remain comrade Jonathan Djanogly has told the BBC that the rebel customs union amendments were not necessarily intended to be put to a vote.
That’s not to say Theresa May’s in the clear – there is a long wait until that vote. Before then, she has to deliver a Brexit speech on Friday that unites her party and eases concerns on both sides. However, the initial signs are that by being so open in his plan to cause trouble for May, Corbyn may have scared some Tories off.