Labour seeks ‘soft Brexit’ in bid to inflict Commons defeat on May

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn put forward an amendment demanding ‘full access’ to the single market

Two anti-Brexit protesters carry flags opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

The UK’s main opposition party proposed a plan to effectively stay in the European Union’s single market, a move that could push the country toward keeping closer ties with the bloc after Brexit.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn put forward an amendment to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s flagship Brexit legislation – to be voted on next week. It would make it a formal goal in negotiations to maintain "full access" to the single market after leaving. Mrs May is determined to leave a market without barriers.

Labour can’t pass laws on its own and needs members of Mrs May’s governing Tory party who favour a softer version of Brexit to rebel against the PM and vote with the opposition.


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While it’s unlikely pro-EU Tories will want to back an official Labour proposal, it’s possible they could propose a similar re-write that Labour could back.

If Mrs May is defeated, the risk of an early election would increase, which would throw the Brexit process into further disarray and possibly usher in a Labour government. And if the PM is forced to change her approach to the divorce and maintain closer ties, she is likely to face a leadership challenge from the Brexit hardliners in her party.

Under Labour’s plan, the UK would also remain signed up to EU "institutions and regulations", suggesting it could potentially stay in the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Mrs May wants to leave the court’s jurisdiction, although with some exceptions.

The new plan will potentially be put to a vote next Tuesday when the prime minister asks MPs to back her vision for Brexit during a marathon 12-hour debate. She is vulnerable to even small rebellions because she has no automatic majority for her Tory party in the House of Commons.

It’s the latest shift in Labour’s Brexit policy, which has gradually moved toward embracing closer ties to the EU in order to save jobs. The party has already promised it would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU.

“Labour will only accept a Brexit deal that delivers the benefits of the single market and protects jobs and living standards,” Keir Starmer, the party’s Brexit spokesman, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Labour’s amendment, along with a commitment to negotiate a new comprehensive customs union with the EU, is a strong and balanced package that would retain the benefits of the single market.”

When the EU Withdrawal Bill comes back to the Commons on Tuesday, Mrs May will ask MPs to overturn a series of changes imposed on her draft by the House of Lords. One of those amendments called for the UK to sign up to membership of the single market through the European Economic Area (EEA) – the so-called Norway option.

To the disappointment of some of its pro-EU members, Labour is not backing EEA membership and has proposed the latest amendment seeking a new single market access deal as an alternative. But the proposal looks like single market membership in all but name, with Mr Starmer calling for the UK to learn from deals such as the one struck by Norway and negotiate “our own more ambitious agreement”.

But the proposal could be seen as single market membership in all but name.