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Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May want the same Brexit
06 May, 2019

Party-political positioning will keep them apart. I hope.

London4Europe Committee member and retired HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg examines Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit. It’s a fantasy, fails Labour’s six tests, is worse than Remain and much the same as the Prime Minister’s deal (which no-one likes). Anyway, it’s a sham fight over the non-binding political declaration.


Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit plan

Details are in Annex A and summarised here:

  • To respect the result of the referendum, and leave the EU.
  • An end to freedom of movement.
  • A strong relationship with the single market.
  • With dynamic alignment on EU rules on workers, consumers and environmental protection.
  • But exemptions from state aid and similar rules.
  • A permanent customs union with the EU where the UK would have a say over new trade deals.

Earlier resistance to the Irish backstop seems to have been dropped.


It’s a fantasy deal    

In spite of Corbyn's confidence, it is hard to believe that the EU would offer the UK any worthwhile “say” in negotiating trade deals.  Turkey – the biggest country to be in a customs union with the EU - does not have a real say. See also the BBC's reality check.

Rejecting freedom of movement and the state aids rules means that there is not going to be a “strong” relationship with the single market. The EU’s “No cherry picking” rule surely does not apply just to Theresa May.

Corbyn believes that a customs union “would ensure no hard border in Northern Ireland and avoid the need for the government’s half-baked backstop deal”. He is mistaken: at least some adherence to single market rules is also required.


It fails Labour’s six tests  (see Annex B)

The deal would not offer the exact same benefits as single market membership.

But it would also not deliver the exact same benefits as membership of the customs union. For example, Britain would have to offer the preferences that the EU negotiates to the countries with whom the EU signs a trade deal but they would not have to offer those preferences to the UK.

As a bonus failure, the TUC’s assessment showed that a customs union failed each of their tests (see Annex C below) which include frictionless trade with Europe.


It’s a Brexit. Of course it’s worse than Remain     

“Freedom of movement will as a statement of fact end when we leave the European Union”. Corbyn presents that as though it were some outside event. But Brexit Britain would have full control over its immigration policy. Nothing stops Labour from saying that they would unilaterally allow EU citizens freedom of movement into the UK as now. Who knows how the EU might respond? Ending Freedom of Movement is Jeremy Corbyn’s choice. Without Freedom of Movement there cannot be a “soft” Brexit.

We would not have friction-free trade. Here is a video from the UK Trade Policy Observatory.

We would be rule-takers, something that Corbyn says he cannot countenance.

It would do nothing for services, where we make our money

We would be outside the great European Peace, Democracy and Freedom project that brings the peoples of Europe closer together in one of the greatest examples of practical international solidarity.

So it would jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland.


Similar to the Prime Minister’s deal

Both May and Corbyn are united on the two key decisions from which everything else follows: to have Brexit; and to end freedom of movement.

Both wish to minimise the economic harm by some alignment with the EU single market and customs union. Both wish to impose additional caveats which mean that the alignment cannot be close. The differences between them are largely rhetorical.

Corbyn wants a permanent customs union and the Prime Minister does not. She is committed to solving the Irish border question by means of the agreement on a future relationship. It is hard to see a solution to the Irish border that does not include a permanent customs union of some sort. So the difference is perhaps just that Corbyn may say it and the need to keep the ERG on side will not allow Theresa May to say it.

In the Government’s political declaration there is a commitment to negotiating provisions in a trade agreement for open and fair competition including on social, employment and environmental standards. It is hard to think the Government and Corbyn are far apart.

The same provisions would apply to State Aids. Here there might be a greater distance between the Government and Corbyn. Depending on what a Corbyn government would wish to do in reality and the extent of EU insistence on a level playing field the gap might not be unbridgeable.

So as the Institute for Government analysis puts it: “At this stage, there are few signs that a deal negotiated by Labour would be substantively different to that proposed by the Government.”. But it recognises the fantasy elements when it notes: “The parties are nearer to each other than they are to the EU.


It’s a sham fight over the political declaration

This is not an argument over the Withdrawal Agreement but over the terms the UK would negotiate for after the end of Transition.

Nothing in the Withdrawal Agreement precludes Corbyn’s Brexit deal. He just needs to win a post-Brexit general election and negotiate the future relationship. And if it is the Conservatives who negotiate the immediate post-Brexit arrangements, a future Labour government could re-negotiate them (post Brexit we would anyway be in a permanent negotiation with the EU).



Corbyn and his inner circle support Brexit. His plan is in essence the same as Theresa May’s. There must be a real risk that the current talks lead to an agreement. It is easy enough to find words that mean different things to different people: how about a “lasting customs arrangement covering much of our trade in goods”? what would that mean or not mean?

Rafael Behr argues in the Guardian that Corbyn and May are too set in their ways, too tribal, to get together. Others have pointed out the difficult politics in the two parties that stand in the way of an agreement. We have to hope that political manoeuvring means that the talks break down. Because given the limitations on Labour’s commitment to a referendum (only in the case of Theresa May’s deal or No-deal), we need the Prime Minister’s Brexit to be the only deal on the table.




The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.




Labour do not really publish a lot of policy papers on their public website. So you have to work out their policy from the 2017 manifesto, speeches, interviews and motions tabled in Parliament. It seems the key elements of Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit plan are:

The overall policy is “Labour respects the result of the referendum, and Britain is leaving the EU.

There would be a new customs union where the UK would have an appropriate say on any new trade deal terms.” and, at any rate in February 2018, that “new customs arrangement would depend on Britain being able to negotiate agreement of new trade deals in our national interest. Labour would not countenance a deal that left Britain as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others. That would mean ending up as mere rule takers

Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union”.

I think the state aid rules do need to be looked at again, because quite clearly, if you want to regenerate an economy, as we would want to do in government, then I don’t want to be told by somebody else that we can’t use state aid in order to be able to develop industry in this country,” and “We would also seek to negotiate protections, clarifications or exemptions where necessary in relation to privatisation and public service competition directives, state aid and procurement rules and the posted workers directive.

The deal must “guarantee that Britain does not fall behind the EU in workers’ rights or protections for consumers and the environment.

There is to be “a strong relationship with the single market underpinned by shared institutions and obligations” or perhaps just “access to the single market”.

Corbyn used to insist that there should be no Irish backstop “which [Britain] cannot leave without the agreement of the EU, with no time limit or end point and no say for Britain, sowing the seeds of a backlash in years to come.” – although that requirement seems now to have been dropped. If I am mistaken and no-backstop is still Corbyn’s policy then there would be a substantive difference between the Government and Labour as the Withdrawal Agreement would need to be re-opened for Labour’s policy.



On 25 April 2017 Keir Starmer set out six tests for Brexit.

(1) “Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?”

(2) “Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?”

(3) “Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?”

(4) “Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?”

(5) “Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?”

(6) “Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?”

Most of these tests are too vague to be determined objectively. But Test (2) is pretty definite.



The three tests were set in September 2017 and reaffirmed in September 2018:

  • maintaining workers’ existing rights and establishing a level playing field so that British workers’ rights do not fall behind those of other European workers,
  • preserving tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe to protect jobs, and
  • ensuring that trade and livelihoods in Gibraltar and Ireland are protected.

The TUC also sometimes have five tests (November 2017) and published an assessment of Brexit options, including a customs union, against them:

  1. Protecting jobs through frictionless trade in goods and services
  2. A level playing field for workers’ rights
  3. Dispute resolution and supervision for labour, consumer and environmental standards
  4. Giving workers a say
  5. Protecting the Good Friday Agreement