Jim Pickard and Andrew Bounds
Theresa May has telephoned top union leaders, including Unite’s Len McCluskey, for the first time in more than two years as prime minister, in a bid to win support for her stricken Brexit deal.
After a series of parliamentary defeats, Mrs May is trying to bolster the chances of approval in next Tuesday’s historic vote on her deal by appealing to Labour backbenchers — but so far with little success.
Mrs May has promised enhanced guarantees on environmental and workers’ rights and on Wednesday called two union leaders — Mr McCluskey and Tim Roache of the GMB — to try to convince them of the merits of her deal.
“She told them the deal is designed to protect jobs and the economy, it’s a good deal for workers,” said one aide.
Mr Roache noted that Mrs May had not spoken to either union leader since becoming prime minister in 2016. “I represent 620,000 working people and it’s about time their voices were heard,” he said. “After nearly three years I’m glad the prime minister finally picked up the phone.”
The government has promised support for an amendment to Mrs May’s deal by three Labour backbenchers. This would enshrine current EU labour and environmental protections into British law after Brexit. It would also allow MPs to decide whether to adopt future EU standards if they are strengthened in the future.
The government has always said it would not use Brexit as an excuse to dilute employment and environmental rights.
While Mrs May met half a dozen Labour MPs from Leave constituencies this week as part of a drive to “meet with people with a wide range of views”, many on the opposition benches remain sceptical about voting for the withdrawal agreement — at least in the short term.
“Why would you back it at this stage? To do so you would have to be stupid politically,” said one MP in for a Leave constituency. “You would annoy Labour party members, Remainers and hardcore Brexiteers . . . If it gets closer to [the scheduled exit date of] March 29 and no-deal Brexit, it would be a different matter.”
Jon Cruddas, an MP who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said he did not think Mrs May’s initiative would “win me over” but added, “it shows possible intent around creating a proper debate”.
Mr Roache emphasised that the GMB supported a second referendum rather than the May deal.
As recently as October, around 30 Leave-constituency Labour MPs were agonising over whether to support Mrs May’s plans. By Christmas, the number had dwindled to a small handful.
John Mann, one of the authors of the new amendment, said it would make Mrs May’s deal “more attractive” by tackling some of Labour’s concerns.
One Labour MP said the move could provide a “fig leaf” to allow some wavering colleagues to back the Conservative government, but added: “Will it win over many? Probably not.”
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour party leader, said he would not back the amendment, noting that it had already been “emphatically rejected by the TUC”, which argues that the proposal falls short of a long-term, binding guarantee that UK workers’ rights would keep pace with those in Europe.
In a speech in Yorkshire, Mr Corbyn repeated his call for a general election, but cast doubt on the assumption that he would move quickly next week to trigger a vote of no confidence in the government.
Instead, he said he would only do so when confident of winning. “Clearly, Labour does not have enough MPs in parliament to win a confidence vote on its own,” he admitted.
Mr Corbyn added that delaying Britain’s exit date beyond March 29 was a “possibility” — more tentative language than that used by Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, who said on Wednesday that an extension to the two-year Article 50 exit process was now inevitable.
Labour says it opposes Mrs May’s deal because it wants a permanent customs union and a “new and strong relationship with the single market” as well as improved labour, social and environmental protections.
The party thinks that, if Mrs May’s deal is rejected by parliament, the prime minister could yet move towards its position on a customs union — even though that would be opposed by scores of Eurosceptic MPs.
One aide to Mr Corbyn cited the example of 2013 when David Cameron, then Tory prime minister, pushed through legislation on gay marriage despite the opposition of 128 of his MPs.
But a government figure described the idea as “quite unlikely” since it would infuriate Brexiter Conservative MPs. A Tory MP said: “The parliamentary maths may be behind a permanent customs union but . . . it would split the party permanently.”