British PM Theresa May accused of seeking 'bargain basement Brexit'

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech on the government's plans for Brexit at Lancaster House in London on Jan 17, 2017.
British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech on the government's plans for Brexit at Lancaster House in London on Jan 17, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister Theresa May was accused by opposition lawmakers on Wednesday (Jan 18) of pursuing a "bargain basement Brexit" following her threat to undercut the EU economically if it did not get a new trade deal.

In angry exchanges in the House of Commons, the day after Mrs May set out her negotiating objectives on Brexit, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said she "demeans herself and her office and our country's standing" by making such threats.

He urged the Conservative leader to "stop her threat of a bargain basement Brexit, a low-paid tax haven on the shores of Europe", saying it could hurt Britain more than the rest of the bloc.

The party has accused some in Mrs May's government of using Brexit to turn Britain into a low-waged, low-skilled economy with low corporation taxes and light-touch regulation.

In her speech on Tuesday (Jan 17), Mrs May confirmed Britain would be leaving Europe's single market when it exits the European Union following last year's referendum vote, and would seek a free trade deal with the other 27 member states.

She hinted that if EU leaders sought to punish Britain, London may respond by slashing tax rates to attract companies and investors, changing "the basis of Britain's economic model".

Mr Corbyn told the BBC's Newsnight programme on Tuesday: "We do not want to go in the direction of a race-to-the bottom competition where we lower corporate rates of taxation because doing that would obviously hit government income.

"If we model ourselves on the Cayman Islands or the British Virgin Islands or tax havens around the world then where is the money going to be for education, for health, for housing - all the things that matter in people's lives?" he said.

In the Commons on Wednesday, Mrs May repeated her insistence that she wanted a free trade agreement that offers "the best possible access" for British businesses into the EU and EU businesses into Britain.

Scottish National Party (SNP) lawmaker Angus Robertson also used the weekly prime minister's question time to take aim at Mrs May's plan, warning that one analysis suggested Scotland would lose up to 80,000 jobs if it left the single market.

"Does the prime minister believe this is a price worth playing for her Little Britain Brexit?" he asked.

Leading Brexiteers have been accused of isolationism, and German newspaper Die Welt headlined its coverage of Mrs May's speech on Tuesday "Little Britain".

In her speech, the prime minister clarified her goals for the Brexit negotiations, which are due to begin after she triggers Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon treaty by the end of March.

She said her priority was to control immigration from within the bloc, acknowledging that this meant Britain would have to leave the single market, but insisting a new trade deal could be struck in its place.