One of Theresa May’s ministers has said the prime minister has rejected Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit plan of a customs union but insisted her letter to the Labour leader showed there was “a lot of common ground” between the parties.
“What’s happening here is not a shifting of red lines,” Rory Stewart, the prisons minister, told BBC Breakfast.
On Sunday, May responded to Corbyn’s letter from last week that laid out Labour’s conditions for backing any Brexit deal, one of which is membership of a permanent customs union.
While the prime minister made it plain she did not want this, several newspapers on Monday said May had held open the door to the issue, and thus the idea of a softer Brexit.
Stewart rejected this interpretation, saying: “The prime minister remains very clear that she thinks that a very major economy like the United Kingdom needs to have the freedom to be able to make its own trade deals, so she’s disagreeing with Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion that we enter a permanent customs union.”
Asked if May was looking at some sort of compromise with the opposition leader, Stewart said: “Yes. I think she feels, as I do, that there isn’t actually as much dividing us from the Labour party as some people suggest.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Boris Johnson, a leading Brexiter, said May should focus on renegotiating the Irish backstop issue rather than join Corbyn in what he called “a complete U-turn”.
“He now wants to frustrate Brexit very largely by staying in a permanent customs union,” the former foreign secretary said.
Other elements of May’s letter indicated she is hopeful of at least winning over some wavering Labour MPs when her plan is next voted on in the Commons, which is unlikely to be before the end of the month or later.
In her response to Corbyn, May made a concession on environmental and workers’ rights, discounting his idea of automatic alignment with EU standards but suggesting instead a Commons vote every time these change.
Stewart said: “What she is saying is that we have a lot if common ground, a lot more common ground perhaps than people have acknowledged, on things like environmental protections, workers’ rights, making sure that we get investment into areas of the country which haven’t done as well out of the last few years as other parts of the country.”
Asked if May thus realised she needed more Labour votes, Stewart said: “Certainly, the maths suggest that to get this through we’re going to need support from all around the house.”
If May had hinted she could accept a customs union it would have risked splitting her party. Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, indicated she would resign if this happened. She told Sky’s Sophie Ridge on Sunday: “I absolutely do not think that should be our policy.”
Stewart played down the likelihood of imminent departures, but conceded there were varying opinions. “I don’t think anybody actually is going to resign,” he said. “There are clearly two different positions – there are people who are more on the no-deal side, and people who are more on the customs union side. You can see this right the way through parliament.”
May’s letter came amid a growing presumption that while she remains officially committed to putting a revised Brexit plan to MPs as soon as possible, in practice this is unlikely to happen before the end of February, if not later.
The communities secretary, James Brokenshire, said on Sunday that if no finalised deal were put to the Commons by 27 February, MPs would again be given an amendable motion to consider, allowing them to block a no-deal departure or make other interventions.
May remains officially committed to getting the EU to agree to significant changes to the Irish border backstop as a way of winning over the DUP and agitated Tory backbenchers who helped bring about the heavy defeat of her plan.
Later on Monday, the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, will go to Brussels to meet the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, after the PM’s meetings in Brussels last week.
In her letter to Corbyn, May argued that her own Brexit plan “explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union” in terms of avoiding tariffs, while allowing “development of the UK’s independent trade policy beyond our economic partnership with the EU”.
She wrote: “I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?”
If, as seems inevitable, May has no revised deal to put to MPs before Thursday, the government is committed to tabling another amendable motion, as happened in late January, when MPs passed up chances to extend the Brexit deadline or rule out no deal.
With the deadline fast approaching, business leaders have called for swifter action. The head of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, said the UK was “in the emergency zone of Brexit now” and the confusion would not only affect jobs and investment, but harm the UK as a long-term business destination.