Theresa May has responded to a letter from Jeremy Corbyn by writing one of her own – offering him another face-to-face meeting.
The Prime Minister has been told that she needs to get Labour on-side if she has any hope of getting her Brexit deal passed through Parliament.
May questioned Corbyn’s key call for the UK to remain in a customs union with Brussels but offered concessions to his other requests and said she wanted talks between Labour and Tory teams ‘as soon as possible’ to secure cross-party support.
Her offer came as Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay prepared for talks with European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier with the Government stepping up efforts to secure changes to the Irish backstop measure in the Withdrawal Agreement.
In her letter to Corbyn, responding to the conditions for a Brexit deal set out by the Labour leader, the PM said she wanted the Tory and Labour teams to consider ‘alternative arrangements’ to the backstop together.
In response to his demand for a customs union, May insisted her deal met many of the conditions he had set.
She said the existing Political Declaration – the part of the Brexit deal setting out the goals for the future UK-EU relationship – ‘explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union – no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors and no checks on rules of origin’.
But she said it also recognises the development of the UK’s independent trade policy.
Corbyn’s demand is for a customs union that gives the UK a say on future trade deals the EU might strike – something Brussels appears unlikely to accept.
The Prime Minister said: ‘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?’
She also questioned whether the call for completely ‘frictionless’ trade would mean reneging on Labour’s commitment to end free movement by requiring single market membership.
May has previously ruled out a customs union, which would restrict the UK’s ability to strike trade deals, and could face Cabinet resignations if she changed her position.
Treasury chief secretary Liz Truss refused to rule out resigning if May backed a customs union.
She told Sky News: ‘I absolutely do not think that should be our policy.’
Corbyn also called for UK standards to keep pace with evolving standards across Europe.
May rejected automatically following EU rules on workers’ rights and environmental protection but ‘in the interest of building support across the House’ she said the Government is prepared to commit to asking Parliament if it wishes to follow suit if standards change.
She said: ‘It is good to see that we agree that the UK should leave the European Union with a deal and that the urgent task at hand is to find a deal that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, can command support in Parliament and can be negotiated with the EU – not to seek an election or second referendum.’
Corbyn has repeatedly said there should be an election if May cannot get a deal through Parliament and he has faced concerted pressure from some in his party to push for a second public vote.
Despite the Prime Minister assuring MPs she would make changes to her Withdrawal Agreement after a series of votes to amend it in the House of Commons, she was unable to make any real breakthrough when she went to Brussels last week.
Labour has already said it will use a vote – expected on Thursday – to attempt to force the May to bring her deal back for another meaningful vote by February 26 to prevent her ‘running down the clock’ before Brexit.
Justice Minister Rory Stewart told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the PM is seeking a compromise with Corbyn on Brexit.
He said: ‘I think she feels, as I do, that there isn’t actually as much dividing us from the Labour Party as some people suggest.’
Asked about delays in bringing another meaningful vote, the minister said: ‘I agree that the longer this goes on the more risky it gets, obviously.
‘But, the solution to this has to be to get Jeremy Corbyn, or the Labour Party, or indeed Parliament as a whole, to come behind a deal.’
MPs are expected to be offered another chance to vote on amendments which could influence May’s Brexit ‘strategy’ on February 27.
The move is aimed at postponing a rebellion by ministers who are committed to removing the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29.
Pro-EU Tories Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston both said ministers should ‘step up’ this week to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said May could not keep delaying – and threatened to force a vote if there was no secured deal on February 26.
‘We will wait and see what the Government comes back with on Thursday, but we have got to put a hard stop to this running down of the clock,’ he said.
‘The Prime Minister is pretending there is progress in the talks. However, the reality is that she is using up the remaining time to try and impose a binary choice between her deal and no deal.
‘This week Parliament needs to say enough is enough – and take control of what happens next.’
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said a further delay was ‘deeply insulting to the country and to Parliament’.