A tale of two speeches: May versus Corbyn on Europe

05 Mar 2018
The main dynamic in British politics is that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is preparing for government while Theresa May’s Conservatives are focused solely on avoiding a schism on Europe. We are focused on a first 5-year term. Their aim is getting to the end of each week.

This was glaringly obvious in the two speeches that book-ended last week. Corbyn led on Labour’s policy to participate in a Customs Union with the European Union post-Brexit. By contrast, Theresa May set out another five conditions for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. There was nothing positive of substance in her speech at all.

This matters. All politics must be about what you are in favour of, not simply what you are against.

The five conditions are simply more of the same, a vague outline of the compromises the Cabinet will sign up to and what they are against. Other than the most bland or unobjectionable aims, almost a year after Article 50 was triggered, the Prime Minister has no detailed policy, no positive proposals to offer.

The Prime Minister and the Tory Cabinet as a whole can offer nothing positive. In her Mansion House speech she insisted that every deal with EU is bespoke. On this, she is right. The agreement with Canada is different to that with South Korea, and the arrangements with Norway differ from those of Switzerland. Labour has itself argued for a bespoke deal. But her speech told us only that she would not accept the Canadian or Norwegian deals. She did not tell us in any practical terms what she does want.

This is diametrically the opposite of Labour’s approach under Jeremy Corbyn. The main focus from his speech in Coventry was rightly the commitment to aim for a customs union with the EU. This is a positive, concrete proposal which addresses two key issues. Manufacturers based in the UK, including car makers and others face enormous disruption with Brexit and a customs union significantly ameliorates that.

In addition, it aims to prevent the re-imposition of hard, policed border in Ireland. This is vital in upholding both the spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement. Apart from the potential damage in Ireland, this is a solemn international Treaty between two sovereign governments.  When we are looking to build and develop new international relationships, a reputation for sticking to agreements is imperative.

But Corbyn’s speech also offered proposals on a range of other issues, including our relationship with a host of EU bodies. Theresa May rejects membership of any customs union. Instead, her exhortation was to ‘bold and creative thinking’ leading to a collaboration in goods unparalleled anywhere else.

The exhortation should be directed at her own colleagues. The only draft legal agreement has come from the EU, nothing from the government. It is also unworkable nonsense. It is pure cake and eat it.

Theresa May is a highly intelligent woman. The absence of substance in her massage arises because the Cabinet and the Tory party cannot agree a way forward. They cannot reach a deal among themselves. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has offered a serious proposal to the EU27. We can do a deal. He has a vision for raising the prosperity of this country. She has only a series of fudges to avoid a Tory crisis. She puts her party first. Jeremy Corbyn puts jobs, growth and prosperity first.

* Originally published in the Times Red Box.

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