Labour will support remaining in a customs union with the European Union, Sir Keir Starmer has said - as the leaders of both main parties prepare to make key speeches setting out their Brexit positions.
The shadow Brexit secretary warned it was now “crunch time” for Theresa May over her approach to the customs union, and said it would be “better” to reach “bold” new trade agreements by working with the EU.
The PM will make a major speech on Friday after an ‘away day’ with senior cabinet ministers to agree the UK’s negotiating stance - in which “divergence” was said to have won the day.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is preparing for his own intervention on Monday morning, in which he is expected to clearly set out his party’s view following repeated calls from activists.
Starmer said Labour had “long championed being in a customs union with the EU and the benefits” - and a recent poll showed 85% of party members agree with him.
He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “Obviously it’s the only way of realistically, to get tariff free access, it’s really important for our manufacturing base and nobody can answer the question how you keep your commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland without a customs union.”
Starmer said Labour had had “many weeks of discussion unanimously” and had agreed to develop their policy ahead of Monday’s landmark speech, in which Corbyn will say Brexit will neither spell disaster nor create “a land of milk and honey”.
“The truth is more down to earth and it’s in our hands: Brexit is what we make of it together,” he will add.
The Labour leader is also expected to lobby for more money for the NHS and promise that if in government, his party would negotiate tariff-free access to the single market, while protecting living standards and workers’ rights.
Starmer continued: “The customs arrangements at the moment are hardwired into the membership treaty so I think everybody now recognises there’s going to have to be a new treaty - it will do the work of the customs union.
“It’s a customs union, that’s what the CBI are saying now, it’s what the various amendments are now all saying - there’s going to have to be a new agreement, but will it do the work of the current customs union? Yes, that’s the intention.”
Starmer said Britain was more likely to strike new deals if it works “jointly with the EU”, adding: “We all want to do bold new trade agreements but we would be better off doing that with the EU.”
He also signalled support for cross-party amendments - including one by ardent Brexit sceptic Anna Soubry - on the customs union to the Trade Bill.
“The Labour front bench put down a number of amendments paving the way for the option of a customs union - they went down a few weeks ago,” Starmer said.
“Now these cross-party amendments have gone down essentially saying the same thing and to put it bluntly crunch time is coming for the prime minister.”
Asked whether Labour would back the cross-party amendments, he said: “We haven’t made a final decision on that but they are so close to our amendments ... but whether it’s our amendments or cross-bench amendments, crunch time is now coming for the prime minister because the majority of Parliament does not back her approach to a customs union and the majority in Parliament needs to be heard and it will be heard sooner rather than later.”
International trade secretary Liam Fox said he hoped Tory rebels would be won over by the PM’s words later this week.
“I hope that they will have an open mind and listen to what the prime minister says because I think that what the prime minister will set out will deal with a lot of the reservations that they have had,” he told the programme.
“We want to persuade our colleagues of the merits of our argument before we take the bill forward.”