‘ONE area that the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn and I do not agree,’ Tory PM Theresa May said in the House of Commons yesterday, ‘is on his suggestion that the UK should remain a member of the Customs Union.’
She was making a statement on her latest attempt to win concessions from the EU over her Brexit deal.
She continued: ‘I would gently point out that the House of Commons has already voted against this. And in any case, membership of the Customs Union would be a less desirable outcome than that which is provided for in the Political Declaration.’
May said: ‘On the 29th January this House gave me a clear mandate and sent an unequivocal message to the European Union.
‘Last week I took that message to Brussels. I met President Juncker, President Tusk and the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, and I told them clearly what Parliament wanted in order to unite behind the Withdrawal Agreement, namely legally binding changes to the Backstop.
‘And I explained to them the three ways in which this could be achieved. First, the Backstop could be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
‘. . . Secondly there could be a legally binding time limit to the existing Backstop, or third there could be a unilateral exit clause to that Backstop.
‘… And as expected, President Juncker maintained the position that the EU would not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement. And I set out the UK’s position, strengthened by the mandate that this House gave me. That this House needs to see legally binding changes to the Backstop and that can be achieved by changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.’
Labour leader Corbyn responded: ‘The Leader of the House said that any changes to the Backstop won’t be written into the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, can the Prime Minister confirm that?
‘As I received the Prime Minister’s letter yesterday in response to Labour’s Brexit plan, it became clear to me that the Prime Minister is merely engaged in the pretence of working across Parliament to find solutions.
‘She has not indicated that she will move one iota away from her rejected deal or any of her red lines.
‘On the Backstop the Prime Minister has pointed out that Labour also has concerns. But let’s make no mistake about this, that this has never been a major issue for the Prime Minister’s deal.
‘Indeed, in order to stop the UK falling into the Backstop we need a permanent Customs Union, and a strong Single Market deal, that is key to keeping an open border on the island of Ireland. That is key to protecting jobs, living standards and industries in this country.’
He called for the PM to ‘do the right thing to rule out no deal and back Labour’s alternative plan.’
May responded: ‘I want to see a deal that can get through the House supported by all members of my own party and my own confidence and supply partners. But it is actually, I think in the interest of this Parliament and in the interest of taking legislation forward if we see a strong vote from across the whole House in the relation to this issue.
‘The tone of the response of the Leader of the Opposition did not give much encouragement in relation to that issue, but we will continue to talk to the Labour Party back bench.’
SNP’s Ian Blackford said: ‘What does the Prime Minister not understand of this: The EU will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement that she signed up to.’ He then called for an extension to Article 50.
Tory MP Boris Johnson asked: ‘Can the PM confirm that there is no point in having a time limit on the Backstop unless that is written into the treaty itself?’
May replied: ‘This is the point that I have been making to the European Union, that one of the concerns of this House was that any assurances that were given in terms of the temporary nature of the Backstop, in early January, were not of the same legal form as the international treaty which forms the Withdrawal Agreement. That is why, what we are asking for is legally binding status to these and that is through the Withdrawal Agreement.’