Brexit talks: stumbling blocks that threaten a Labour and Tory deal

Customs union, public vote, workers’ rights and ‘Boris lock’ remain areas of disagreement

Senior Labour figures including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, will meet cabinet ministers again to continue talks on changes to Theresa May’s Brexit deal that could potentially win Labour support.

The chancellor, Philip Hammond, and the environment secretary, Michael Gove, will join May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, the business secretary, Greg Clark, the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay, and the chief whip, Julian Smith, for talks expected to run into Tuesday evening.

Sources on both sides have stressed the talks are still at “exploratory stages” with both sides setting out their positions in an exchange of letters after the opening discussions last week.

Those close to the Labour side have expressed surprise the talks have centred on persuading the opposition of the benefits of May’s negotiated deal, with extra involvement for parliament on the next phase of the deal.

Key areas of disagreement

A customs union

Lidington and May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, are viewed as the figures who are taking the prospect of a customs union deal most seriously, with Labour suspicious that others may see the talks as a convenient distraction to persuade the EU to grant a short extension.

Nothing concrete appears to have been offered yet. Hours before the talks were due to resume, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, wrote to Conservative MPs saying a customs union would be the “worst of both worlds”. His comments suggest he would be unable to remain in the cabinet if May were to agree to a customs union.

The ‘Boris lock’

The key worry about any concessions Labour can extract from the government is the future of the prime minister. The political declaration, unlike the withdrawal agreement, can be reopened by the EU. But it is non-binding, even if May can be persuaded to include a permanent customs union and a hard Brexiter successor like Boris Johnson could disregard it.

It has been suggested that the the prime minister would offer to rewrite the government’s withdrawal bill to enshrine any agreed customs arrangement in domestic law.

May has also promised a bigger role for parliament in mandating the government’s negotiating terms for the next phase of talks, accepting an amendment to that effect from Labour’s Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy. However, senior Labour figures believe the protections in that amendment are relatively weak.

Second referendum

Both McDonnell and the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, have insisted that a public vote on any deal will remain part of the discussions – with Starmer promising the parliamentary party he will not sign up to anything they cannot stomach. A significant number, if not a majority, of Labour MPs, would not accept any deal without a confirmatory referendum.

May and the majority of her cabinet have said they cannot countenance that option. However, there may be scope for the prime minister to offer a free vote in parliament on a confirmatory referendum if a deal is reached with Labour. Tory whips believe it would be defeated even if it was a free vote.

Workers’ rights

The government has made a commitment not to reduce the standards of workers’ rights from EU laws retained in UK law. Parliament will be given the right to consider any future changes in EU law that strengthen workers’ rights or workplace health and safety standards, and vote on whether they too should be adopted into UK law.

Labour and trade unions have suggested the protections so far are insufficient and could be easily unpicked by future governments. It has called for full dynamic alignment of workers’ rights where new protections are automatically adopted – a demand understood to be under serious consideration.

Environmental protections

Gove has joined the talks on Tuesday with environmental protections and consumer standards likely to be on the table for discussions. Labour has demanded full dynamic alignment of environmental and consumer standards as well, which could be conceded by the government. Gove has repeatedly insisted he does not want to dilute standards in search of trade deals.


Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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