Theresa May’s letter is addressed to Corbyn, but aimed elsewhere


The PM is clearly trying to quell a Tory rebellion and provoke a Labour one

Theresa May’s return letter to Jeremy Corbyn is full of some surprisingly warm words for the Labour leader and his offer of talks to come to a Brexit compromise.

But the friendly tone masks two key things: an attempt to tease out Labour divisions on free movement and to publicly expose how little space there really is between Labour’s Brexit tests and May’s negotiated deal, meaning May has little appetite for any more radical changes.

It is also clearly aimed not just at Corbyn and his MPs but at the rebels in May’s own party. The letter offers an opportunity for fresh talks between the camps “as soon as possible” and engages on the substance of Labour’s five demands set out in a letter to May last week.

Downing Street will hope that a willingness to appear open to further discussions with Labour will be a shot across the bows of some Brexiters who fear the prime minister will soften her Brexit deal to win Labour votes.

What the letter does not do is accept Labour’s key term for voting through a Brexit deal: a commitment to seeking a permanent customs union.

May challenges Corbyn as to why he believes the Labour policy of a permanent customs union, which would involve requesting a say over future trade deals from the EU, would be better than the terms she has negotiated.

The prime minister says her deal “explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union” and pointedly asks the Labour leader: “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?”

May’s letter also makes an uncomfortable challenge to Labour on free movement. She says her own plans for close alignment with the EU’s customs union and single market “provide for the closest relationship possible” outside full membership, a key demand from Labour. But she pushes Corbyn to say how he would go further than that without remaining within the single market.

“This would mean accepting free movement, which Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto made clear you do not support,” she added. No 10 will be well aware at how the debate is raging within Labour at the moment about what the party’s policy should be on free movement. Ending free movement is May’s reddest of red lines.

Labour’s Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has hinted at reopening that option. “I actually think we get stuck on the freedom of movement discussion too early without saying, what does a principled, effective and fair immigration policy look like?” he said.

Yet the most striking point about the letter overall is not the differences between the two leaders but the similarities, perhaps an uncomfortable point for critics of both May and Corbyn.

On security, Corbyn’s final demand, May even suggests that she and Corbyn form a united front to push Brussels for more concessions to allow UK access to some intelligence tools that the EU has been reluctant to let Britain use without the oversight of the European court of justice.

In the letter, too, comes confirmation that May is seeking to legislate to ban any rollback of workers’ rights – the “non-regression lock” demanded by many Labour MPs and trade unions – as well as a vote in parliament on whether to accept new European standards to keep pace with Europe. Some MPs, however, would like to see Britain automatically uprate its standards as the EU does.

The section is full of cosy language praising “Conservative and Labour governments” of the past that have “led the way” in high standards.

Here, May reveals another key audience she hopes her letter will reach. The section is carefully aimed not just at Corbyn but at Labour MPs who May hopes to persuade to vote for her deal, even if their leader does not.

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