After refusing to meet with Theresa May until she ruled out a no deal Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn finally held talks with the Prime Minister this afternoon. Accompanied by members of his inner circle – Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy – the Labour leader used the meeting to put May under pressure on the customs union.
Corbyn discussed with May the best way to secure a Brexit deal which can command a majority in the Commons – arguing that this was by moving to support a permanent customs union between the UK and EU. However, depending on who you speak to, there are varying reports of how that suggestion was received. A spokesman for Corbyn insists that May showed a ‘serious engagement in the detail’ of Corbyn’s proposal for a customs union with the EU. However, Downing Street insist that May has not shifted her position – and used the meeting to insist on the need for the UK to forge independent free trade deals.
So, where does this leave May’s Brexit plans? Tuesday night’s vote in theory gives May a mandate to try and renegotiate the backstop with Brussels. She can tell EU leaders that what’s stopping a deal getting through the Commons is only the backstop part of the withdrawal agreement. However, all the signs so far suggest that the EU are not willing to play ball. Numerous Brussels officials and EU leaders have today ruled out the idea of reopening the withdrawal agreement.
Some in government believe the only way they will be able to renegotiate the backstop if the UK can offer the EU something. Jean Claude Juncker has reportedly said that the price of renegotiating the backstop is committing to a customs union in the non-legally binding political declaration on the future trade relationship. There is some talk of committing to a customs arrangement which falls short of an actual customs union – as this could be more palatable to Brexiteers. However, any such move would isolate members of the European Research Group – given that one of their biggest concerns about the backstop is that the UK could get trapped in an arrangement in which it must abide by EU rules and couldn’t forge trade deals. Notedly, one member of the ERG – Anne Marie Morris – has said that the reason she was the lone member not to vote for the Brady amendment is that she feared it would result in May moving to back a permanent customs union:
‘I now fear that when she goes and has private talks [with Brussels] she may come back with something about a customs union and my fear with that is is that we know that is something Labour could support and that is for me very much concerning as that would absolutely enable us not to deliver Brexit.’
"Where's the victory?" – @AnneMarieMorris, only member of the ERG group of Brexiteer Tory MPs not to vote in favour of sending Theresa May back to try to negotiate the Irish backstop yesterday, says she fears May will return with a proposal to stay in a Customs Union instead. pic.twitter.com/NPtZRefjGm
— Martyn Oates (@bbcmartynoates) January 30, 2019
Today’s meeting with Corbyn will have served as a reminder to May that she could potentially get a deal through the Commons by softening her stance on customs arrangements. However, the Prime Minister knows full well that any such move would be a step too far for a chunk of her party.