Front Bench: Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit silence is over – he’s on the attack

 Today’s Front Bench covers Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit u-turn. A sample of the email is below. If you like what you see, sign up here. Don’t forget to vote in the poll and leave your reasoning in the comments below. The best responses will feature in this afternoon’s Brexit Briefing.

It’s been a while, but Labour is leading the agenda today. For most of the winter the party’s strategy has to been to keep mum and let the Tories contort themselves over Brexit. Why risk your own perfectly calibrated Brexit fudge with an attack on the Conservatives when they are already doing such a good job of laying into each other and their own Government? 

Playing both sides on Brexit

However, the calculations in Labour HQ have changed. The Government looks to be on the ropes and so, five days before Theresa May’s long planned speech, Jeremy Corbyn is going on the attack with a Big Brexit Speech of his own. 

Last week an amendment to the customs bill was put forward by Remain Tories which would effectively force the UK to remain in a customs union. The weekend papers were full of speculation over how many Tories could rebel. There were even suggestions that Sinn Fein MPs might suddenly take up their seats in Parliament and slash the Conservative’s majority.   

But, for any of that to matter, Labour MPs need to vote with the Tory rebels. And so, today Corbyn will announce that the Party is shifting its stance for good and will back the UK remaining in a customs union with the EU, potentially freeing his MPs to file into the division lobbies alongside Remainer Tories. 

Labour have so far managed to balance their northern, Leave-voting, working class heartlands with their strongly-Remain, liberal, middle-class metropolitan core vote. Reopening the issue risks both this balance, and causing party debate to spiral back into calls for single market membership and a second referendum. Don’t forget, Labour has its own Brexit divisions. 

Opening Pandora’s Box

Party leaders have clearly figured that this is too big an opportunity to miss, but the Eurosceptic Labour MP Frank Field is not impressed. He’s told The Telegraph that backing a customs union would be “ratting” on Leave voting Labour supporters, and that Corbyn “believes the EU is a capitalist conspiracy to exploit the working class. Membership of the customs union would be anathema to the Jeremy I know.” 

Meanwhile, writing in The Telegraph, Brexit Secretary David Davis accuses Labour of selling “snake oil” on Brexit which would put British jobs at risk from state-sponsored trade dumping and throw away “one of the central prizes of Brexit” – an independent trade policy. 

The vote on the customs bill has been delayed until after Easter, reportedly because of fears over a government defeat. Yet Corbyn’s speech still comes at the start of another big week in Brexit. 

The week in Brexit

Formal negotiations resume today, with the topic of choice still the much-harder-to-negotiate-than- expected transition deal. Also today, David Lidington, the Cabinet Secretary, will attempt to mend fences with Edinburgh and Cardiff on Brexit in a speech in North Wales (see below). 

Then on Wednesday the EU should publish its draft legal text of December’s withdrawal agreement. The FT is reporting that this will contain a nasty surprise for the UK on Ireland (see below). 

Finally, on Friday, Theresa May will deliver her long advertised speech setting out the Government’s vision for the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU. 

It could be that we learn more about Brexit this week than we have in the last few months combined. Then again, we could reach Friday with even more questions than we have today. Are we there yet?

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