Theresa May shuns Jeremy Corbyn's customs union demand but proposes more talks in letter to the Labour leader: Brexit News for Monday 11 February

Theresa May shuns Jeremy Corbyn's customs union demand but proposes more talks in letter to the Labour leader: Brexit News for Monday 11 February
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Theresa May shuns Jeremy Corbyn’s customs union demand but proposes more talks in letter to the Labour leader…

The prime minister queried his call for the UK to stay in a customs union with the EU – but welcomed more talks with Labour on a Brexit agreement. Mrs May wants the two parties to discuss how “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop – a commitment to avoid a hard border – could work. She did not reject any of his conditions outright in her reply. Writing her response to his letter of last Wednesday, Mrs May told the Labour leader: “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.” Labour has asked for “a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union” with the EU, with the same external tariff. It would give the UK a say on any future trade deals that the EU may strike. Mrs May does not agree, and 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?” – BBC News

  • Theresa May’s Brexit letter to Jeremy Corbyn – PoliticsHome
  • Theresa May accepts talks offer from Jeremy Corbyn in bid for Brexit breakthrough – Sky News
  • Theresa May agrees to hold fresh talks with Jeremy Corbyn over his plans for a soft Brexit – Telegraph (£)

…which some suggest risks a Cabinet split…

Theresa May opened the door last night to a soft Brexit by engaging with Jeremy Corbyn on a customs union in a move that puts her at risk of losing the support of members of her cabinet. In a letter to the Labour leader, the prime minister suggested that their parties hold further talks on the issue of a permanent customs union in an attempt to win support from Labour MPs for her Brexit plan. She also offered guarantees on environmental and employment laws, addressing more of the opposition’s central demands. Mrs May was warned, however, that by reaching out to Labour, she could prompt an exodus of ministers. Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, failed to rule out quitting the government if Mrs May backed Labour’s customs union demands. Sources close to another cabinet minister said a core belief was that “a customs union was not Brexit”. – Telegraph (£)

  • Soft Brexit fears as May refuses to rule out staying in Customs Union in letter to Corbyn that could spark host of ministerial resignations – Daily Mail

…after Liz Truss hinted at resignation if May backs a Labour-style Brexit deal

Tory Cabinet minister Liz Truss refused to rule out quitting her role if Theresa May accepted Labour demands for the UK to join a permanent customs union with the European Union. The Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss twice ducked the question of whether she would step down raising the prospect of Cabinet resignations among Brexiteers should the Prime Minister opt for a softer Brexit. She told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “I appreciate Jeremy Corbyn has come to the table but the reality is what he is proposing does not deliver on what we want as a country.” Ms Truss said the UK must have an “independent trade policy” and questioned whether a customs union could command a majority in Parliament. Asked if she could stay in office if the Government backed a customs union she said: “I absolutely do not think that should be our policy.” Ms Truss also rejected calls for Brexit to be delayed to allow further time for negotiations. “As the deadline approaches, minds get focused and a deal gets done,” she said. – iNews

  • Liz Truss hints she could quit Cabinet if May backs staying in EU customs union to get Brexit deal past MPs – MailOnline

> WATCH: Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss on Sky’s Ridge on Sunday

More Commons votes on Brexit promised for late February as Labour accuses May of running down the clock

Housing Secretary James Brokenshire admitted it might not be the final, decisive vote on the PM’s deal that Labour and some Tories are demanding. The prime minister needs to get a deal approved by Parliament by 29 March to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Labour has accused her of “cynically” running down the clock. Instead of a “meaningful” vote on the prime minister’s deal with the EU, MPs could be given another series of non-binding votes on possible Brexit alternatives by 27 February, with the final vote on whether to approve or reject the deal delayed until the following month. Mr Brokenshire refused to commit to this date in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, saying there could be more votes on amendments to the proposed deal instead. “If the meaningful vote has not happened, so in other words things have not concluded, then Parliament would have that further opportunity by no later than 27 February,” said Mr Brokenshire. “I think that gives that sense of timetable, clarity and purpose on what we are doing with the EU – taking that work forward and our determination to get a deal – but equally knowing that role that Parliament very firmly has.” – BBC News

  • Theresa May promises further votes by end of February as Labour plots to stop PM ‘running down the clock’ – Evening Standard
  • May Promises Brexit Vote by Feb. 27 to Avert Parliament Revolt – Bloomberg

> WATCH: Housing Secretary James Brokenshire on The Andrew Marr Show

Europe will blackmail Britain to hand over more money and give up Gibraltar if we try to delay Brexit, experts warn

Europe would be able to “blackmail” Britain if we tried to delay Brexit, experts warned today. Germany could demand billions of pounds with nothing in return, according to a report from the Eurosceptic group Lawyers for Britain. And Spain could launch a fresh power grab for Gibraltar as the price for extending the Article 50 process. The warning comes as pro-Remain MPs gear up for a fresh attempt to keep Britain in the EU for up to another year. The report drawn up by top lawyer Martin Howe QC pointed out that every European country would get a veto if we tried to delay Article 50, the legal mechanism which takes us out of the EU. He wrote: “Quite apart from what the EU as a whole may have concerns about, each individual Member State may have demands of its own.” He claimed Gibraltar would be up for grabs as Spain tries to use the chaos to gain control over the UK territory. – The Sun

> Martin Howe QC on BrexitCentral yesterday: Why seeking an extension to Article 50 would be a terrible idea

EU reportedly opens ‘secret’ talks with the UK about a managed no-deal

Secret talks have begun between the UK and EU to prepare the way for a managed no-deal Brexit, sources in Brussels have claimed. It is also understood that the World Trade Organisation has opened the door to a route for the EU and UK to continue trading on an interim basis in the event of no deal being reached by March 29. The revelations come as leading pro-Brexit lawyers have warned that extending Article 50 would be a “blackmailer’s charter” for the EU. Senior figures in Brussels have said that officials at UK Rep – the British embassy in Brussels – have been “putting out feelers” for extending Article 50, but “only to deliver a managed no-deal” The reports have been strongly denied by Downing Street which insists that the Government “is solely focused on delivering a deal”. But it is also understood that the WTO has privately told Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman that his plan to use Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to have a near seamless managed no deal would work. Express

UK signs post-Brexit trade continuity deal with Switzerland

The U.K. reached an agreement with Switzerland that will allow it to continue trade without any additional tariffs after it leaves the European Union. The deal means the nations can avoid having to trade under World Trade Organization terms, and eliminates duties on most goods traded between the U.K. and Switzerland, according to a statement Monday. The British automotive sector could avoid up to 8 million pounds ($10 million) a year in tariff charges under the agreement, it said. “Switzerland is one of the most valuable trading partners that we are seeking continuity for, accounting for more than 32 billion pounds worth of trade a year,” Trade Secretary Liam Fox said. “Not only will this help to support jobs throughout the U.K. but it will also be a solid foundation for us to build an even stronger trading relationship with Switzerland as we leave the EU.” – Bloomberg

  • Liam Fox signs deal ensuring smooth trade with Switzerland after Brexit Day – Express
  • UK and Switzerland to sign post-Brexit trade agreement – Reuters

May backs Chris Grayling despite collapse of Brexit ferry contract

Downing Street has said the prime minister has full confidence in Chris Grayling after Tory MPs called for him to be sacked over the collapse of a controversial ferry contract. A cabinet minister also defended Mr Grayling, the transport secretary, saying that he had done a “really tough” job. Mr Grayling’s decision to award a £13.8 million contract to Seaborne Freight, a start-up company with no ferries, to run services between Ramsgate and Ostend in the event of a no-deal Brexit had already attracted widespread criticism. James Brokenshire, the housing and communities secretary, defended his colleague, saying he had “done a huge amount of work to prepare for our departure from the EU”. Asked if Mr Grayling was competent, Mr Brokenshire told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Yes, I think Chris has done a really tough job, really, really positively to ensure that we are well prepared. I strongly endorse all the work Chris has been doing.” Downing Street said that the prime minister had full confidence in Mr Grayling. – The Times (£)

  • Cabinet backs Chris Grayling after ferry fiasco, says minister – Guardian

Brexit could boost UK’s military standing, says Defence Secretary

Brexit represents an opportunity for Britain to boost its global military standing in response to the threats posed by Russia and China, the defence secretary will say in a notably combative address at a defence thinktank. Gavin Williamson intends to argue in a speech at the Royal United Services Institute on Monday that a post-Brexit UK should redefine its role as a global power prepared to intervene against countries that “flout international law”, backed up by new military technologies and capabilities. The cabinet minister, who is increasingly keen to talk up Brexit at a time when a deal is elusive, is expected to say leaving the EU will allow the UK “to consider how we not only project but maximise our influence around the world in the months and years to come”. Williamson is expected to conclude: “Brexit has brought us to a great moment in our history. A moment when we must strengthen our global presence, enhance our lethality and increase our mass.” – Guardian

  • Gavin Williamson heats up UK defence rhetoric – FT(£)

Tony Blair brands no-deal Brexit ‘very dangerous’, claiming it will ‘devastate’ Northern Ireland peace…

Tony Blair has reiterated his warnings on the consequences of a no-deal  Brexit , saying it could be “devastating” for the Northern Ireland peace process. The former prime minister said no deal will inevitably lead to a “really hard border” on the island of Ireland and cause a huge split within the UK. Mr Blair – a vocal advocate of the UK remaining in the EU – said he believed a second Brexit referendum might happen “when people see what the true Brexit alternatives are”. The former  Labour leader told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “No one could responsibly propose (a no-deal Brexit). It would be economically very, very dangerous for Britain, and for the peace process in Ireland it would potentially be devastating. “You would have a hard border, very hard border. A no-deal Brexit means a really hard border between north and south in Ireland, it’s contrary to the Good Friday Agreement and it will cause an enormous fissure within the United Kingdom.” – Mirror

> WATCH: Former PM Tony Blair discusses Brexit on Sky’s Ridge on Sunday

…but DUP urge Blair and Major to ‘dial down rhetoric’ over Brexit peace threat

Gregory Campbell last night dismissed as “scaremongering” claims by two former Prime Ministers that a no-deal Brexit would endanger peace. The DUP East Londonderry MP said Tony Blair and Sir John Major were “playing on the fears” of people who live near the border, and urged both to “dial down the rhetoric”. Mr Campbell’s comments came after former premier Mr Blair claimed that a no-deal Brexit could be “devastating” for the peace process, while Sir John revealed that he feared a return to violence in such a scenario. Mr Campbell hit out at the “extreme language” from the two statesmen. He said: “Two former Prime Ministers should be more responsible in their language. This talk of violence and hard borders is careless in the extreme. They are playing on the fears of genuine people who live on the border.” Mr Campbell said that London, Dublin and Brussels have all committed to avoid a hard border in any circumstances, saying that this was a time for cool heads. “It looks to me that Blair and Major should dial down the rhetoric and stop talking a lot of hot air. This is a time for cool heads and solutions, rather than scaremongering. – Belfast Telegraph

Police fear loss of EU crime-fighting powers

Foreign criminals will be able to abscond from justice in the event of a no-deal Brexit because the UK will lose access to EU crime-fighting powers, the police officer in charge of contingency planning has warned. Richard Martin, the Scotland Yard officer leading the Brexit response on behalf of British police chiefs, also said that mitigating the loss of powers such as the European arrest warrant and the Schengen information system if Britain crashes out of the EU on March 29 without a deal would cost police an extra £20m each year in additional bureaucracy. Mr Martin raised particular concerns about the European criminal records information system, which returns information on an EU national’s criminal background usually within six days. Without the system, such searches take an average of 66 days, by which time the individual would have been released from custody. If the search returned details of past convictions, police would have to attempt to find and re-arrest the criminal in question. – FT(£)

Theresa Villiers: A positive deal is in all our interests

Last week MPs sent a signal to Brussels about the kind of deal with the EU that could gain majority support. We asked for the removal of the “backstop” arrangement in the draft Withdrawal Agreement which would lock us into the EU customs union, tie us to EU laws without a say over them, and create a regulatory border, dividing Northern Ireland from Great Britain. I welcome the Prime Minister’s assurance that she is seeking “significant and legally binding change to the Withdrawal Agreement”. Warm words will not be sufficient, nor will some kind of “joint interpretative instrument” or “codicil”. We need major changes to the text of the draft treaty if the terms of the amendment passed by Parliament are to be honoured. Donald Tusk’s bizarre and offensive comments were unnecessary and unhelpful. But we should rise above such abuse and continue to put the positive case for a deal which respects the vote to leave but also sets a path towards a positive future trading and security relationship. – Theresa Villiers MP for the Express

Matthew d’Ancona: Have MPs, finally, come up with a decent Brexit proposal?

It all has the feel of the world’s most boring thriller. Though there are only just under seven weeks left until Britain’s official date of departure from the European Union, public life seems drowsy with a lethal brew of fatalism, insouciance and burrowing cowardice. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show this morning, James Brokenshire, the communities secretary, looked less like the minister charged with preparing local government for the social chaos of a no-deal outcome than a beaming salesman politely urging a client to renew his contents insurance policy. As for the voters, they give the impression of impatience rather than trepidation. Why can’t the political class just get on with it? If Brexit was ever a principled uprising, it now more closely resembles a form of boredom longing to be curtailed: it has more in common with a delayed Deliveroo order than a popular revolution. – Matthew d’Ancona for the Guardian

Robert Peston: Why we are still no closer to a Brexit prognosis

I have this mental image of Brexit Britain on a hospital ward waiting for treatment that never comes. We are hanging on for an operation that is supposed to make us stronger and happier, but we still don’t know what kind of procedure it will be – or even when or whether it will definitely happen. This coming Thursday was supposed to be a big day. It was billed as when MPs would vote on whether Brexit should be postponed, and what kind of Brexit they might eventually support. But it now looks as though the consultant in charge of our treatment, the prime minister, will announce on Tuesday or Wednesday that she would dearly love them to hold fire. And she will probably persuade enough of them to do so by promising, from the despatch box, that on 27 February they will have another opportunity to have those votes and thereby force her to follow their Brexit will, rather than her own. – Robert Peston for The Spectator

Patrick O’Flynn: Blame Blair for the mess EU has made of Brexit

A sore tooth is enough to put anyone in a bad mood. A sore Tusk, however, is a temperamental event on an altogether bigger scale. And there is no doubt Donald Tusk, President of the EU Council of Ministers, was feeling very sore when he made his spectacularly undiplomatic outburst against Brexit campaigners, wondering what “special place in hell” lies in wait for us. Tusk is usually a cool character. So while many observers were swept up in the reaction to his remarks, others asked themselves what had brought them about and what the outburst tells us about the pressure on the Brussels high command as Britain’s March 29 leaving date looms. The trail, fascinatingly, leads back to a plot to stop Brexit spearheaded by none other than former PM Tony Blair. – Patrick O’Flynn MEP for the Express

George Brandis: Britain was once a global trading power. After Brexit it can be again

A short distance from Australia House on the Strand, a commemorative plaque marks the location of the offices of the Anti-Corn Law League. The repeal of the Corn Laws was the great issue of 19th century politics. And, while it produced endless controversy in the Parliament and split the Tory Party, there are few today who would doubt that Britain made the right decision to throw off the chains of protectionism. In fact, it is hard to think of a nation in history whose prosperity was more directly the product of free trade. For centuries, Britain was a land of merchant adventurers, for whom the oceans were highways of a global commerce. Wherever one stands on the question of Brexit, it undoubtedly presents opportunities, denied to Britain for almost half a century, to once again embrace its historic role as a global trading power. – Australian High Commissioner in London George Brandis for the Telegraph (£)

Telegraph: If we’re heading for a no deal Brexit, why is the Government not acting now?

For much of this week the House of Commons was due to have been in recess, and for next week, too. The break was cancelled in order to deal with the Brexit crisis, for that is what it is becoming. Yet the business in Parliament this week is remarkably light. The mainstay is due to be a statement from Theresa May on Wednesday about the progress, or otherwise, of her talks with the EU that are aimed at changing the text of the Withdrawal Agreement to meet objections to the Irish backstop provision. So far, the EU side has refused to budge on this matter and looks unlikely to by Wednesday. If there is no agreement, Mrs May has pledged on at least three occasions, as have many Cabinet ministers, to table a motion on Thursday that can be amended by MPs. It was this commitment two weeks ago that persuaded potential Tory rebels to give Mrs May more time when it looked as if the Commons might try to seize control of events by removing the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. The potential for greater confusion by the end of this week is high. Businesses are growing ever more anxious about this uncertainty, with those that trade with the Far East indicating that the real deadline for them is not the end of March but the end of this week. Without clarity they cannot be sure what customs arrangements will be in place when their goods arrive in six weeks’ time. If we really are heading for no deal, why is the Commons business this week not crammed full of the legislation that will be needed to ensure that it can happen relatively smoothly on March 29? – Telegraph (£) editorial

Nicky Morgan: Country before Party? It’s a false choice. The country needs the governing party to deliver on Brexit

What does the ‘national interest’ now demand of MPs? We know that Brexit is an extraordinary political process, putting unusual strain on our party political system and our constitution. We also know that the stakes are getting higher, as March 29th gets closer. Whatever one thinks about leaving the EU, it cannot be denied that it represents a fundamental change in relations with our nearest neighbours and our trading relationships with the world. Some people think that this change is long overdue, whilst others regret that it is happening at all. The issues are so important that the phrase ‘the national interest’ is being used more and more to argue that various matters relating to Brexit are or are not ‘in the national interest’. I’ve no doubt that all MPs and Ministers believe that the Brexit path that they are treading is in this interest. Who goes into politics to act against it? And I’ve also no doubt that those who say they are putting Country before Party also sincerely believe that. Ultimately, I’ve no doubt that we all believe we should put country first, constituency second and party last (whatever the whips might say). But given the very different Brexit scenarios and possible outcomes on offer, how can we all be right? Which option (or perhaps combination of options) can really be said to be in the national interest? Is this why it is easier to know what each of us is against in terms of Brexit than what each of us is in favour of? Is it easier to rule something out as being against the national interest, rather than to say confidently: ‘doing x is definitely in the national interest’? – Nicky Morgan MP for ConservativeHome

Shanker Singham: How British farming can flourish after we leave the EU

Last week, we have heard from Liam Fox about no-deal planning with regard to food prices. While tariffs on industrial goods are relatively low – so that the UK falling back on the Common External Tariff is less of an economically significant event – this is not true of agriculture. Since the UK is a major importer of agriculture from the EU (the EU-27 has an approximately £23 billion surplus in agricultural trade with the UK), No Deal would mean falling back on the Common External Tariff.   Some agricultural tariffs are very high (for some products over 70 per cent). That could mean significant food price inflation. Right now, the major developed countries generally trade agricultural products using a system of tariff rate quotas; an import quota where there is a lower tariff for a certain volume of imports, and then, if imports exceed that amount, the tariff kicks up to a much higher and usually prohibitive level. This is highly managed trade. At the moment, there are no tariffs or other quota-based restrictions to our imports from the EU-27.  But this will change if we leave without a deal. UK farmers can have a bright future, and the UK and EU can agree a deal with an alternative version of the backstop which works for all parties. In the strange world of Brexit, these two issues are now joined at the hip. – Shanker Singham for ConservativeHome

Brian Monteith: Brexit plan or no Brexit plan, the EU has always been a bully

By its own actions last week we can see the EU political elite is on its collective back foot and the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole Parliament, have to hold their nerves if they are to gain concessions they could find acceptable. The huge defeat of the Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and the subsequent passing of the “Brady amendment” have shown the EU that if it “replaces” the backstop with “alternative arrangements” then a deal might be approved after all. Instead of giving succour to the prime minister and strengthening her hand at Westminster by making sweet overtures the various EU Presidents, bureaucrats and negotiators turned to chauvinism and insult. Their deliberate choice was to apply disruptive tactics to cause division in the British government and on the backbenches of both parties. We should recall that before the referendum David Cameron asked for some minor reforms (all published) that he believed would ensure a victory for remaining in the EU. The EU sent him and his plan away with a flea in his ear. Just imagine where we would be now had they agreed to Cameron’s plan. Unfortunately the EU leaders are not reasonable people. It had to be their plan – or walk. So we walked. Plan or no plan the EU has wanted to teach the UK a lesson and demonstrate to other member states leaving is difficult. Now it is their deal – or walk. If they show no ability to compromise then, again, we are left with no alternative but to walk and embrace WTO rules that give us back control. – Brian Monteith for The Scotsman

Brexit in Brief

  • UK awaits its Brexit Napoleon – Tom McTague for Politico
  • Eurosceptics take aim at Tory MPs not toeing their line – FT(£)
  • CBI warn of job losses in ‘brutal’ no-deal Brexit – Metro
  • Juncker to toast Britain’s exit from the UK by spending 29th March in Dublin – Daily Mail