Working to make government more effective


How close are May and Corbyn to a Brexit deal?

As talks continue between Labour and the Government, the two sides are within touching distance – but that does not mean they will meet.

As talks continue between Labour and the Government, Jill Rutter argues the two sides are within touching distance – but that does not mean they will meet.

The Labour Party’s six tests for Brexit are now five key demands. If the Government is prepared to meet them, there should be no barrier to Labour supporting the Prime Minister's deal, and no need for any sort of public vote.

Below we compare Labour’s demands to the Government’s stated positions and ease of negotiation with the EU.

Labour demand

Government position

Proximity factor


A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union, including alignment with the union customs code, a common external tariff that includes a say on future EU trade deals.

A UK-wide customs territory with a common external tariff (i.e. a customs union). Includes the backstop.

Political Declaration compatible with a permanent customs union, but government still wants an independent trade policy.



The Withdrawal Agreement provides as near as possible a commitment to a permanent customs union. But the Prime Minister is reluctant to commit to a permanent customs union as hampering UK’s ability to run an independent trade policy. The EU is clear that a permanent customs union is on offer – but much would depend on how much say UK wants in EU trade talks.
Close alignment with the Single Market, underpinned by shared institutions and obligations. Clear arrangements for dispute resolution.

The Chequers white paper proposed alignment with EU regulation on goods but not on services.

The  Government has made proposals on governance and dispute resolution.

Olly Robbins, the Prime Minister's Europe Adviser and Chief Negotiator for Brexit, said the Political Declaration allowed the Government to continue to argue for the position it took in that white paper.

Goods 5/5

Services 1/5


Both Labour and the Government want the same thing on goods; but on services the Government’s starting point is normal EU third country rules. It would try to do better than that in trade negotiations.

Labour may be willing to accept European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction, though it does not make that clear. This is still one of the Government's red lines.

It is not clear where Labour now stands on free movement. But its proposals are, in substance, as open to the EU accusation of cherry picking as the Government’s. It is very unclear what shared institutions mean.
Dynamic alignment on rights and protections

The Government offered to accept a Labour amendment on workers’ rights in the meaningful vote debate – which would have given Parliament the option of following EU standards.

On the environment, the Government wants to aim higher than EU standards.



Should be a relatively easy area to agree. The EU will be very keen to bag a commitment to maintain EU standards. But committing to this now removes one of the UK’s potential negotiating cards in phase two of Brexit talks. 
Clear commitment on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including in areas such as the environment, education and industrial regulation.

The Government would like to explore staying in the aviation, chemicals and medicines regulators and participate in some EU programmes like Erasmus.



Pretty close already. The EU would be open to considering participation in programmes already open to third countries. Agencies may be more of a challenge.
Unambiguous agreements on the detail of future security arrangements, including access to the European Arrest Warrant and vital shared databases.

The Government has already made clear it wants to maintain close security cooperation after Brexit. This was in the Prime Minister’s Munich speech and the Chequers white paper. 



No difference. This is a divisive issue for the EU. Some member states want an exception to be made for the UK, which would be needed – others do not.

None of the Labour demands would affect the Withdrawal Agreement – which is helpful since the EU says it cannot be reopened. The Political Declaration is non-binding, so Labour is rumoured to be seeking a way to bind Theresa May’s successor into any agreement they reach – but that would be impossible to guarantee.

Agreement with each other looks easier than agreement with the EU

The parties are nearer to each other than they are to the EU. So, even if they do come to an agreement, necessary changes to the Political Declaration may be less easy to secure.

 Labour’s demands on the Single Market remain ambiguous. It is unclear whether it now accepts the EU’s red line of the indivisibility of the four freedoms or indeed ECJ jurisdiction. And it is far from clear how negotiable Labour’s proposed relationship is with the EU.

Equally, Labour and the Government both make virtually identical demands on security – but the EU may not be willing to concede such generous treatment to a third country.

The big area of outstanding difference is on a permanent customs union. The current draft of the Political Declaration is compatible with that, and the backstop is as close as it is possible to come to having that guaranteed in the future relationship. But a transparent commitment by the Government to a permanent customs union is still the issue most likely to split the Conservative Party.

But the big question for Labour is on a second vote

Supporting a new vote is as divisive for Labour as a customs union would be for the Conservatives. The formula concocted at the Labour Party Conference would mean if 'Labour’s deal' is agreed with the EU, the commitment to a second referendum would go away. But for many in the Labour Party, no deal can be as good as a chance to reverse Brexit – and finally ruling that out could split the frontbench and the party.

Meanwhile, a 'confirmatory vote' remains an anathema to a Prime Minister still determined to deliver some sort of Brexit. That may ultimately be the issue that scuppers what, at face value, looks a relatively easy deal between two frontbenches with official positions closer to each other than the dissidents behind them.

Political party
Labour Conservative
May government
Institute for Government

Related content

02 FEB 2024 Podcast

What is the state of Brexit?

The Expert Factor takes a deep dive into how Brexit is working out – and how it might work out in the months and years ahead.