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UK's May and Corbyn hint that a Brexit deal could be in sight

May 02 2019 10:28
Tim Ross and Robert Hutton, Bloomberg

Theresa May and her arch political rival Jeremy Corbyn are both signaling they may be edging closer to a Brexit deal after a month of talks between their teams that seemed to be going nowhere.

Both the UK government and the main opposition Labour Party talked up the prospects for a compromise plan and will hold more negotiations in the days ahead. The prime minister is aiming to wrap up the talks next week, either with an agreement or without one.

On Wednesday, May signaled she could move on one of her key red lines and allow the UK to sign up to some kind of permanent customs union with the EU. The pound strengthened.

“There is a greater commonality in terms of some of the benefits of a customs union that we’ve already identified between ourselves and the official opposition,” May told a parliamentary committee. “Looking at the balance of these issues is part of the discussion. Can we come to an agreement on that? I hope we will be able to.”

May invited Corbyn to work on a cross-party deal last month in a desperate attempt to get an agreement, after the blueprint she negotiated with the European Union was rejected for a third time by Parliament.

With local elections taking place on Thursday, the talks have been low-key this week, but the government is planning one more big meeting on May 7 or 8 to decide whether a consensus with Labour is possible.

For May, the key to any compromise on a customs union is likely to be whether both sides can agree to call it something else. That’s because she has promised to take the UK out of the EU’s customs union, and pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party would regard reversing this pledge as a major betrayal.

“It’s all too often framed in terms of existing language,” May told the committee. “Often people will use the term ‘customs union’ but have in their mind different things. The important thing is to sit down and talk through, what is it we are trying to achieve here?”

Meanwhile Corbyn’s office gave May fresh hope. A Labour spokesman said what a customs union is called is not the most important thing.

Tariffs

One of Labour’s key demands in talks with the government is maintaining a joint customs regime with the EU after Brexit so that businesses can continue to have tariff-free trade with the bloc. Manufacturing companies want this too.

Another point on which May and Corbyn have some agreement is the question of a second referendum. Corbyn is resisting demands from within the Labour party to make a referendum on the terms of a deal the price for supporting a joint plan with May. Similarly, allies of the premier say she is fiercely opposed to putting the question of Brexit back to voters, and would find it easier to support a customs union.

Both government and Labour officials believe Corbyn must now weigh up whether it’s in his interests to help complete the EU divorce process. His goal is to trigger a general election and replace May’s Conservative Party in government. She has said she will stand down and make way for a new Tory leader once the Brexit divorce is done, and her successor could seek his or her own mandate in an election.

Corbyn will also have an eye on the potential electoral threat from Nigel Farage, whose new Brexit Party is aiming to eat into votes from Leave supporters in Labour constituencies. The danger Farage poses will be clearer if Corbyn refuses to do a deal with May, and European Parliament elections are allowed to go ahead later this month.

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