11 February 2019

The Prime Minister has now replied to Jeremy Corbyn’s letter. Jill Rutter thinks it is surprisingly warm in tone – and honest about the negotiating challenge ahead – but notes that Corbyn is not the only audience.

Jeremy Corbyn's letter to the Prime Minister set out Labour’s five demands (replacing the six unpassable tests) that might secure their support for her withdrawal deal. No.10 has now press-released the Prime Minister’s reply.

The language is strikingly warm

After months of facing her backbenchers, it is just possible that the Prime Minister found Jeremy Corbyn a much more convivial and like-minded interlocuter – or she may just be experiencing an early Valentine’s Day glow. But given Conservative views of Corbyn and the waspishness of the Prime Minister’s previous exchanges with the Labour leader, the three-page letter steers (mostly) away from political point scoring. The Prime Minister is clearly keen to keep the exchange going by offering further discussions and engaging on the substance.

The Prime Minister is keen to emphasise areas of agreement

Beyond the tone, the Prime Minister notes where she and Jeremy Corbyn have common ground: his concern about the “indefinite” nature of the backstop; the Government’s wish to participate in EU agencies and programmes; and the desire to negotiate continued cooperation on security. 

... and reiterates concessions in other areas

We have known since the debate on the meaningful vote, when Greg Clark had warm words for Labour MP John Mann’s amendment, that the Government was prepared to go further than “non-regression” on social and environmental rights. The Prime Minister uses her letter to make clear that she is prepared to offer a commitment – presumably in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – to give Parliament the choice to keep up with EU standards. She is not clear quite how that would work: would the default be to follow EU standards but with Parliament having the right to overrule, as she proposed for her “Common Rulebook”, or would this operate the other way round? This now comes with an offer of cash for “areas that left behind.”

She also repeats her offer for much more parliamentary involvement in setting the mandate for the next round of negotiations – though again is still not clear what that “bigger say” looks like.

The Prime Minister is much more honest than she has been before about the negotiating challenge

The Prime Minister is notably more frank about the limitations of her deal than she has previously been. She admits that the Political Declaration is neither legally binding nor precise and “MPs cannot be sure precisely what future relationship it would lead to”. She points to the “negotiating challenge” of agreeing “frictionless trade” with the EU outside the Single Market, which she makes clear would mean accepting free movement, and on security cooperation, where the EU is unwilling to concede that “a third country outside the Schengen area and without free movement” should have access to the full panoply of EU tools and measures.

It all comes down to a customs union

There is one big outstanding area of difference: Labour’s desire to see the UK commit to negotiating a permanent customs union with the EU. But the Prime Minister points out that the Political Declaration already offers “the benefits” of a customs union, while also holding out the prospect of the UK pursuing “an independent trade policy”. This is one of the contradictory elements of the Political Declaration. The fuzzy wording allows the Prime Minister to ask why the Labour leader would prefer a customs union with a say in EU trade policy over the UK being able to go it alone. She asks Corbyn “why…it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals, rather than the ability to strike our own deals”. 

Interestingly, this is a question the Prime Minister has herself never really answered – and where she may ultimately be forced to choose. The UK is currently finding that it is harder than it thought to replicate some big EU trade deals – such as EU-Japan – and the Government’s own modelling showed that, even on very optimistic assumptions of landing a range of deals with big countries without the EU landing similar ones, that the effect was only to add 0.2% GDP after 15 years. It would not take much friction at the EU border to eliminate that gain.

The Prime Minister may still have been aiming much of the letter at her backbenches

Jeremy Corbyn is not the sole audience for the letter. By keeping lines to Labour open, the Prime Minister will also be sending a signal to Conservative backbenchers who supported Graham Brady’s amendment. If they are not persuaded by whatever “alternative arrangements” emerge from talks in Brussels (where Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay meets the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier today), then she has another potential route to get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament.

Comments

As a Belgian leaving in Belgium, I am surely not in a good position to evaluate the PM’s letter. However, seen from the other side of the Strait of Dover, it looks first as an attempt to ‘buy’ the vote of the Labour, similarly with the money she proposed for the areas that left behind (but she will need huge amounts, surely more that the average contribution of UK to the EU budget). I agree also that she use that letter to send also a message to her own backbenchers.
She made maybe some concession on the condition to have a frictionless trade but she still do not understand that only a full membership to the EU allows (almost) that.
On the question addressed to Mr. Corbyn why it would be preferable to stay in a customs union with the EU is preferable than to ‘strike own deals’. I think the CBI explained it already very clearly in February last Year. Of course, UK could have some FTAs for which few people and enterprises could be in a better position than via the EU FTA’s but surely not in terms of general interest of the British nation.
The letter also indicates that the EU need to maintain the backstop as it is. UK is unable to bring guarantees to arrive to an agreement that would made it superfluous. Maybe the EU could specify more clearly the minimum requirements of the future agreement under which conditions the backstop will automatically be withdrawn, but this is the maximum, from my view, that EU could do.