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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

UK opposition draws battle lines over Brexit

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will use a speech on Monday to back staying in a customs union with the EU

Jeremy Corbyn is set to clarify his party's position on Brexit on Monday (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, file)
Jeremy Corbyn is set to clarify his party's position on Brexit on Monday (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert, file)

The UK’s opposition leader will use a key Brexit speech on Monday to back remaining in a customs union with the European Union, a move that could heap further pressure on the position of Prime Minister Theresa May.

Jeremy Corbyn will end months of uncertainty within the top ranks of his Labour Party to back a customs union when the UK leaves the bloc as expected in March 2019, according to a senior party figure on Sunday.

Such a shift could clear the way for opposition parties to vote with rebels within Mrs May’s own party to support a customs union and inflict a damaging parliamentary defeat on her government.

Senior ministers have warned Mrs May that her government could collapse this year in the face of a united opposition, according to the Sunday Times newspaper.

It cited Julian Smith, the government’s chief enforcer, as telling the premier there was a “very real threat” that Labour could join 15 to 20 government lawmakers to defeat the government and increase the possibility of a new general election.

"I say to my colleagues…. just be very careful on this one because you're being invited into a Labour party tactical game which will actually end up in real damage to the UK,” said former leader Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC in a warning to party rebels.

Labour is currently ahead in opinion polls but Mr Corbyn’s personal popularity is below that of Mrs May, according to most polls. If Mrs May keeps her minority government intact, she could avoid holding new elections until 2022.

Mrs May has said repeatedly that the UK will leave the customs union to allow the UK to strike its own trade deals with non-EU countries.

The customs union allows the EU’s 28 members to impose the same tariffs for goods from outside the bloc, but restricts the UK’s ability to strike its own trade deals.

Mr Corbyn’s stance was signalled by his Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer.

"Crunch time is now coming for the prime minister because the majority in parliament does not back her approach to a customs union and ...will be heard sooner rather than later," he told the BBC.

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Mr Corbyn faces divisions within his own party with 80 senior figures from the party urging him to go further than committing to the customs union in his speech on Monday.

The signatories included 37 MPs and called for him to stay in the single market, which adds extras commitments to the free movement of people, services and capital.

Labour has not ruled out staying in the single market – but wants the EU to change its rules so the UK can have greater control on migration. Mrs May is due to make her own speech on Friday after lengthy meetings last week with senior colleagues.

UK business has called for clarity and for an open approach to migration to ensure continued British prosperity.

“Evidence strongly suggests that a comprehensive customs union, alongside a deep relationship with the single market, is best for jobs, investment and living standards,” wrote Carolyn Fairbairn, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, in Sunday’s Observer newspaper.