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Jeremy Corbyn hits out at Government over Brexit 'shambles'

Published 16/11/2016

Mr Johnson was challenged over his views of life outside the EU
Mr Johnson was challenged over his views of life outside the EU

Jeremy Corbyn has branded the Government's preparations for Brexit a "total shambles", after Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson suggested leaving the EU would probably also mean quitting the European customs union.

The Labour leader went on the attack over the customs union at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, accusing Theresa May of having "no plan" for the withdrawal talks which she has pledged to open by the end of March 2017.

But Mrs May insisted the Government has a plan to deliver on the June 23 referendum vote for Brexit, and accused Labour of being mired in "confusion" over its position.

Mr Johnson told a Czech newspaper on Tuesday that the UK wanted a "dynamic trade relationship" with the EU following Brexit, but added it would "probably" have to involve leaving the customs union, which allows members to trade goods free of customs levies.

Downing Street was quick to play down the remark, but Mr Johnson was accused by Dutch finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem of offering voters a vision of life after Brexit that was "intellectually impossible" and "politically unavailable".

Following Tuesday's row over a memo from accountants Deloitte suggesting the Government might need 30,000 more civil servants to deliver Brexit, Mr Corbyn told the House of Commons that even Mrs May's ministers are "desperate for an answer" about what she is planning.

"Isn't the truth that the Government is making a total shambles of Brexit and nobody understands what her strategy actually is?" asked the Labour leader. "We have a Brexit team with no plan for Brexit and a Prime Minister who is not prepared to answer questions on what the actual Brexit strategy is."

But Mrs May responded: "We are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations. What we want to ensure is that we have the best possible trading deal with the European Union once we have left."

She insisted: "We do have a plan. Our plan is deliver the best possible deal on trade. Our plan is to deliver control of movement for people from the EU into the United Kingdom. Our plan is to go out there across the world and negotiate free trade agreements around the rest of the world."

Accusing Labour of being confused over its position on Brexit, the PM said: "This Government is absolutely united in its determination to deliver on the will of the British people and to deliver Brexit. His shadow cabinet can't even decide whether it supports Brexit or not...

"The confusion he has got on his benches in relation to the issue of Brexit is yet another example with Labour where they talk, we act. They posture, we deliver. We're getting on with the job, he's not up to the job."

The customs union (CU) covers not only the 28 EU members, but also Turkey and Monaco and some non-EU British territories like the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey.

Members can trade goods free of customs levies but must agree to impose common tariffs on imports from outside the union, making it impossible to negotiate individual trade deals with non-European countries.

The Government is yet to make clear whether it will seek to retain membership of the CU as it takes the UK out of the EU in negotiations under Article 50 of the EU treaties scheduled to be completed by 2019.

But Mr Johnson told Czech newspaper Hospodarske noviny: "We probably will have to come out of the customs union, but that's a question I am sure will be discussed."

Pressed by SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson over whether she is ready to give up membership of the CU, Mrs May would say only that the issue is "not just a binary decision".

Mr Dijsselbloem had said the Foreign Secretary's comments did not make sense.

"I think he is offering to the British people options that are really not available. To say 'we could be inside the internal market, keep full access to the internal market, but be outside the customs union' - this is just impossible, it doesn't exist," he told BBC2's Newsnight.

"The opposite does exist. We have a customs union with Turkey but Turkey is not part of the internal market. So he is saying things that are intellectually impossible, politically unavailable, so I think he is not offering the fair approach that gives the British people a fair view of what is ahead."

Asked how there was no binary choice between staying in or pulling out of the customs union, Mrs May's official spokeswoman said: "There are many aspects to the customs union and as the Prime Minister said it's right that therefore we work through the detail on all of this as part of preparing for the negotiations.

"There are things such as the tariff, there's the paperwork and kind of bureaucracy, there's rules of origin, so there are many aspects to the customs union."

Labour sources reiterated Mr Corbyn's wish for the Government to reveal its Brexit plans to Parliament before triggering Article 50 and said he was "not ruling out change" to the customs union.

Staunchly pro-EU Conservative MP Anna Soubry said major UK firms like Rolls-Royce were concerned about the possibility of Britain quitting the customs union.

Speaking to Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live Daily, the former business minister said: "I've been to Rolls-Royce and I've spoken to them and they said to me `For goodness sake, at the very least we must not leave the customs union. If we do, you will seriously damage our business and this means real people losing real jobs in real parts of our country'."

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