Theresa May was last night poised to mount a humiliating climbdown over a customs union as the price of winning Labour support for her Brexit deal with an additional ‘Boris lock’ to prevent the possibility of a future, hardline-Eurosceptic Tory leader tearing up the deal.
According to senior sources, Tory negotiators have told Labour that the Government would accept UK membership of a customs union – a ‘red line’ for Brexiteers – but on condition that they ‘call it something else’ to avoid inflaming anger among Eurosceptic Conservatives.
And it emerged the PM has offered Jeremy Corbyn a ‘lock’ mechanism, which would prevent any future pro-Brexit Prime Minister such as Boris Johnson from unravelling the deal by having it written directly into legislation.
Under the new plan, the prime minister would offer to rewrite the government’s withdrawal bill to enshrine a customs arrangement in law – so any deal reached with May could not be ripped up by her successor.
According to senior sources, Tory negotiators have told Labour that the Government would accept UK membership of a customs union (Pictured, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn)
The moves are certain to trigger fury among pro-Brexit Tory MPs.
The parties have also discussed offering MPs a vote on whether to hold a second referendum. Neither the Tory or Labour leadership want the public to vote again on Brexit, and they hope a Commons defeat will banish the idea forever.
A source in the cross-party talks said: ‘It was offered with a nod and wink – if we unite to vote it down, a second referendum can be put to bed once and for all.’
With just four days to go until an emergency Brussels summit on whether to further delay Britain’s exit:
- Mrs May warned that Brexit would ‘slip through our fingers’ if she did not cut a deal with Mr Corbyn;
- Philip Hammond signalled the Government was ready to climbdown by declaring there were ‘no red lines’ for a Labour deal;
- Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told The Mail on Sunday that Mrs May’s negotiations with Jeremy Corbyn risked ‘handing the keys to Downing Street’ to an avowed Marxist and destroying Brexit;
- Tory associations warned they would go on strike in May’s council elections if the PM cuts a deal with Labour and clings to office, as a Tory Minister warned fighting the EU elections would be a ‘suicide note’ for the party;
- Tory MPs swung behind the ‘unity’ leadership ticket of pro-Brexit Boris Johnson and pro-Remain Amber Rudd, which they have codenamed ‘Bamber’;
- Allies of Home Secretary Sajid Javid produced polling data to claim he is in a better position than Mr Johnson to win a General Election;
- International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was accused of making a undiplomatic remark about French President Macron’s marriage after last week’s Cabinet meeting.
- In a boost for the cross-party talks, a snap poll by Labour found 42% of voters backed the parties co-operating, with 27% opposed. Labour, Tory, remain and leave voters all backed the talks by significant margins.
According to sources close to the negotiations – which took place over the phone on Saturday rather than through face-to-face meetings – Labour have indicated they don’t mind how the ‘customs union’ is described as long as it conforms to the World Trade Organisation definition of it being ‘an arrangement with a common external tariff’.
Said one source: ‘It must look like a duck and quack like a duck, but it doesn’t have to be called a duck.’
This morning Rebecca Long-Bailey MP told the Andrew Marr Show that Labour had discussed how any changes to the Brexit agreement ‘could be entrenched’ so that any potential future Conservative leader, such as Boris Johnson, would not be able to ‘rip up’ any compromise – a so-called ‘Boris-proof’ deal.
She said a customs union was ‘defined in international law’ and ‘the proposals we have seen from the Government so far and their direction of travel over the last two years have not been compliant with the definition of a customs union’.
‘What we have on the table isn’t a customs union, it certainly doesn’t meet the criteria that many business organisations such as the CBI have been asking for,’ she said.
On the prospect of a second referendum, Ms Long-Bailey said: ‘We have asked the Government whether they would consider complying with our policy position and as yet we haven’t seen anything to suggest that they will.’
She indicated Labour could be prepared to revoke Article 50, cancelling Brexit, if the UK was heading towards a no-deal Brexit on Friday.
‘We have promised our party members and our constituents that we will do all we can to avoid a no-deal situation and it’s something that we would consider very, very strongly,’ she said.
A Labour insider pointed to the fact Mr Corbyn last week supported Commons amendments backing a customs union that failed to include the word ‘union’, insisting they are not ‘wedded to language’.
Wording such as ‘the benefits of a customs relationship’ or a ‘comprehensive customs arrangement’ is understood to have been mooted for the agreement by Downing Street, but is unlikely to fool Tory MPs.
It is understood that Jeremy Corbyn has also been offered a ‘lock’ mechanism, which would prevent any future pro-Brexit Prime Minister such as Boris Johnson from unravelling the deal
In what was seen as an overt display of goodwill towards the Labour Party, Chancellor Philip Hammond yesterday used a visit to Romania to declare there were ‘no red lines’ in the talks.
And in a further sign of a breakthrough, Mr Hammond said he was ‘optimistic that we will reach some form of agreement’ and suggested that there would be an exchange of ‘some more texts today’.
Downing Street insisted that this did not mean Mrs May’s commitment to end freedom of movement was on the negotiating table, but markedly failed to reprimand Mr Hammond for his comments.
Last night, abortive efforts by loyalist Minister Rory Stewart to get MPs to sign a letter supporting Mrs May’s climbdown were met with short shrift by furious colleagues.
Former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab told The Mail on Sunday that Mrs May’s negotiations with Jeremy Corbyn risked ‘handing the keys to Downing Street’ to an avowed Marxist and destroying Brexit
One backbencher said: ‘Rory has asked us all to sign this brown-nosing letter. Everyone has told him to do one.’
Mr Stewart’s letter read: ‘We are writing to express our support for the Cabinet’s decision to open Brexit discussions with the Opposition in the spirit of compromise,’ adding, ‘these are not normal times’. It is thought to have attracted few signatures.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the situation needed to be resolved quickly in order to avoid the ‘existential threat’ posed if the UK remained in the EU at the time of the European elections next month.
He said that ‘telling our constituents why we haven’t been able to deliver Brexit’ would lead to a wipe out, adding: ‘It would be, I think, a suicide note of the Conservative Party.’
Speaking as the negotiations continued, Mrs May said: ‘I want the UK to leave the EU in an orderly way as soon as possible and that means leaving in a way that does not disrupt people’s lives.
‘If we cannot secure a majority among Conservative and DUP MPs we have no choice but to reach out across the House of Commons.
‘The longer this takes, the greater the risk of the UK never leaving at all. It would mean letting the Brexit the British people voted for slip through our fingers.
‘I will not stand for that. It is essential we deliver what people voted for and to do that we need to get a deal over the line.’