British opposition chief piles pressure on PM May

Labour's Corbyn in favour of country staying in Customs union with EU post-Brexit

COVENTRY (England) • Britain should remain in a Customs union with the European Union even after it leaves the bloc, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said yesterday, setting up a possible parliamentary defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May.

As Mrs May tries to strike a divorce deal with the EU by October, she faces a rebellion by a small group of pro-Europeans inside her Conservative Party that Mr Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, hopes to use to undermine her authority.

Mrs May has ruled out any Customs union with the EU after Brexit because it would prevent Britain from striking new trade deals with fast-growing economies including China and India.

Mr Corbyn explicitly backed a Customs union in a speech yesterday, setting the stage for Labour lawmakers to join Conservative rebels in supporting the necessary amendments to trade legislation.

"Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU Customs union to ensure there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need whatsoever for a hard border in Northern Ireland," Mr Corbyn said in the central English city of Coventry.

But the veteran left-winger disappointed some anti-Brexit politicians in his party by indicating that he, like Mrs May, favours Britain leaving the EU's single market - the only way it would be able to prevent unlimited immigration from Europe.

In a bid to win over rebels in Mrs May's party, Mr Corbyn appealed to Members of Parliament of all parties and said Labour would not support any deal that would do lasting damage to jobs, rights and living standards.

PEOPLE'S INTERESTS

I appeal to MPs of all parties to be prepared to put the people's interests before the ideological fantasies.

MR JEREMY CORBYN, leader of the opposition Labour Party.

"I appeal to MPs of all parties to be prepared to put the people's interests before the ideological fantasies," he said.

Mrs May stuck to her position.

"The government will not be joining a Customs union. We want to have the freedom to sign our own trade deals and to reach out into the world," a spokesman said, adding that Britain would seek either a new "Customs partnership" or a "highly streamlined Customs arrangement" with the EU.

The vote on the amendments could be tight: Mrs May holds a working majority of 13 seats and, while media said between 10 and 15 members of her party might rebel, a few pro-Brexit Labour lawmakers are expected to vote with the government.

While defeat would represent a major challenge to Mrs May, some of the Conservative rebels have already played down talk of a government collapse, and any changes could be reversed later in the legislative process.

Labour is narrowly ahead in opinion polls but, like the Conservatives, remains deeply divided on its Brexit strategy and has no appetite for a second referendum on EU membership.

The party's divisions were exposed over the weekend when more than 80 senior members called on Mr Corbyn to commit to remaining in the EU's single market.

"During the transition period, which was proposed by Labour in the first place, Labour would seek to remain in a Customs union with the EU and within the single market," Mr Corbyn said.

"That means we would abide by the existing rules of both during transition."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'British opposition chief piles pressure on PM May'. Print Edition | Subscribe