Jeremy Corbyn Gave a Brexit Speech to Damage the Tories

He spelled out Labour's Brexit position to turn the heat up on May.

by Simon Childs
26 February 2018, 4:32pm

(Matthew Horwood / Alamy Stock Photo)

Today, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech in Coventry setting out Labour’s position on Brexit – an address designed to pile the pressure onto Theresa May, who will be giving her own Brexit speech on Friday.

The headline Labour position is to "seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland". Before this speech, Labour’s position included "a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union" – but given the fact the Tories moved away from a customs union last week, Labour saying the same thing again becomes news.

This differentiates Labour from the Conservatives, who are hell-bent on promoting free trade by crashing out of a massive trading bloc at almost any cost so we can all be feasting on buckets of chlorinated chicken from Trump’s America as we lament the death of the Good Friday Agreement.

Last week, it was revealed that part of this plan for "ambitious managed divergence" means no longer being part of a customs union with the EU. Not "the" customs union that we’re currently in, nor "a" customs union that we could hypothetically negotiate. No customs union at all. This is because Brexiteer Tories believe membership of such a union would stop us striking trade deals elsewhere.

However, this stance is something Conservative remainer-rebels are not going to put up with, so they’ve tabled an amendment to a key Brexit bill. That gives Labour the opportunity to team up with the rebel tories and vote with them in the House of Commons. That bill has now been punted into the long grass – until at least April – because the government is so afraid of being defeated, and for good reason: were that to happen, it could destabilise an already creaking government and, who knows, maybe deliver a KO to May’s leadership and bring about an election.

Corbyn is trying to trip up May without shooting himself in the foot. He has to square Labour support from voters in places which are mostly Labour and mostly remain – like London – and also those from places like Hull, which is strongly both Labour and Leave supporting. And so, in order to negotiate his tricky position and screw over the Conservatives, Corbyn has led Labour to a position that hard Brexiteers are calling a sell-out and Remainers are saying doesn’t go far enough.

That position is to have "full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union… with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections".

Given the fact government Brexit negotiators are famously terrible, we're left with a situation in which Corbyn is being lauded by the more down to earth of our capitalist overlords. He won praise today from the CBI and George Osborne’s Evening Standard, which said in an editorial: "the Labour leader has, with the smallest of nudges, manoeuvred himself into a more pro-business, pro-free trade European policy than the Tory government".

That characterisation doesn’t account for the fact that Corbyn said Labour would also seek to get out of the parts of the EU that would have traditionally had Corbyn railing against it as a capitalist club – EU directives that would stop them nationalising railways or bringing NHS services back in house.

You can tell the smooth operation of capitalism is not exactly a passion project for Corbyn. He delivered this speech barely taking his eyes off the teleprompter. His usual moral tales about hard-up victims of Tory austerity were replaced with the fable of how a Mini car "will cross the Channel three times in a 2,000-mile journey before the finished car rolls off the production line", as an example of why we need a "frictionless, interwoven supply chain".

It's hardly the stuff of that gets Corbynistas going, but sometimes you've got to play the cards that are in front of you. In the Q&A session for media after the speech, one question was granted to an audience member rather than a journalist, who asked, "Please will you hurry up and be our Prime Minster?"

Journalists rolled their eyes, but this speech was more about politicking than anything else, so a soft-ball question like this was strangely on the nose.


Jeremy Corbyn