Don’t cave in to Labour on Brexit, Tories tell Theresa May

May & Corbyn

Theresa May was warned yesterday that more than 100 of her MPs would try to block a softer Brexit as Labour prepared to reject her offer of a temporary customs arrangement to seek further concessions.

Cross-party talks between the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s party, aimed at breaking the deadlock in parliament over the prime minister’s deal, are due to resume tomorrow.

In what would be the first formal offer from the government to the opposition, the Tories are expected to propose a temporary customs deal. Ministers claim this would give Britain the benefits of being in the customs union while allowing some trade agreements to be negotiated but not signed.

This arrangement would remain in place until a general election, at which point Labour could campaign for a permanent customs union.

The Tories would argue for a harder Brexit that, if successful and an alternative solution were found for the Northern Ireland border, would result in the implementation of the trade agreements.

With the prime minister fending off pressure from Conservatives worried that she will further soften her Brexit stance, The Times understands that the government has decided not to offer the full, permanent customs union wanted by Labour. After days of talks it has concluded that the opposition would accept a more temporary deal, avoiding huge ructions inside the Conservative Party.

Tory MPs urged her not to cave in if Labour rejects the offer. Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, told Pienaar’s Politics on Radio 5 Live: “If there is a compromise that turns out to be a kind of ‘Brexit in name only’ involving anything close to a customs union, there would be more than 100 Tory MPs who would never support it.”

Lee Rowley, 38, one of a generation of younger Tory MPs, tweeted: “My message to Theresa May, checked with thousands of residents on the doorsteps in the only place where we gained a council directly from Lab on Thurs: stop this madness. People didn’t vote for you to do a deal with a Marxist. Fix the backstop and stop wasting time.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, said that agreeing to a customs union could lead to “a catastrophic split in the Conservative Party”.

Yesterday a string of Labour figures said they were likely to reject such a compromise, declaring that any promise to maintain the “benefits” of a customs union are too vague.

“We want a customs union, we want a permanent and comprehensive customs union,” John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said. Another senior Labour source said the prime minister’s plan “feels like an extended transition with the intention of ensuring we leave the customs union after a general election. I don’t think it works”.

Another sticking point in the talks is the way both sides can ensure a future Tory leader does not unpick whatever is agreed, known as “entrenchment”. “This is the most difficult issue of all and we’ve spent a lot of time on it,” one source close to the talks said.

Labour wants to find some form of “Boris lock” that provides legal guarantees.

The prime minister caused a setback in the talks by writing in The Mail on Sunday that any deal would be temporary and could be unpicked. “The key point is, the ultimate decision-maker in everything we do is parliament. So future parliaments, with a different party balance, will be able to decide whether they want a closer or more distant relationship with the EU,” she said.

In a blunt rebuff, Mr McDonnell said: “In the wings, if you like, are all the leadership candidates virtually threatening if you like to tear up whatever deal that we do. So we’re dealing with a very unstable government.” Labour has said it will not pull out of the talks, however.

If a deal fails, Mrs May will then hold talks with Labour about putting various options to a vote. If this also does not produce a solution, she could be forced from office after the chief whip Julian Smith conceded that this government’s only task was delivering a Brexit deal.