POLITICS
14/05/2018 21:00 BST | Updated 15/05/2018 09:11 BST

Norway-Style Brexit Now 'Dead' After Jeremy Corbyn Signals To MPs He Won't Back European Economic Area Model

He told MPs he didn't want UK to be a 'rule taker'

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A Norway-style ‘soft Brexit’ has been declared “dead” after Jeremy Corbyn signalled he would not back plans for the UK to join the European Economic Area (EEA).

In a move that will dismay some former Remainer voters, the Labour leader told a weekly meeting of his MPs that he didn’t want the UK to end up as a ‘rule taker’ from Brussels.

The EEA issue was the focus of a packed meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) on Monday night, with more than 20 backbenchers asking questions about the party’s stance on the crunch topic.

Several MPs, including former Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, wanted to know if the party would back the House of Lords amendments to keep the UK in the EEA or a single market.

Peers have inflicted a string of defeats on the Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill in recent weeks, with Labour peers rebelling to insist on the EEA plan last week.

Corbyn’s refusal to commit to the Norway model was seized on by pro-Brexit MP John Mann and a senior Labour spokesman suggested after the meeting that the party would once again whip its MPs to abstain on the proposal.

“The EEA packages packages currently in existence do not meet the priorities that we have set out and that the Norway option is not appropriate and will not work for the kind of Brexit we want to see,” the spokesman said.

“We supported an abstention in the House of Lords over the EEA amendment and we set out what our priorities are - and that will guide whatever we do in Parliament overall. 

“You’ve seen what happened in relation to the EEA amendment in the Lords and although we wouldn’t talk about whipping arrangements and wouldn’t get to them until the amendment is on the table, I think our approach is pretty clear.”

Mann was even more robust, saying afterwards: “EEA is dead after that. MPs in Leave areas have gone back to their constituencies and spoken to their voters, who have told them they don’t want it.

“Even MPs who have not spoken out before and who have not voted in any way that you would define as Brexit before spoke out, and that strengthens Jeremy’s hand.”

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Peers inflicted a string of defeats on the Government over Brexit

Former Shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie said that in fact Corbyn had told the meeting “we should keep our options open”, while saying he didn’t like the EEA because it led to ‘rule-taking’. “There’s still some room for him to reconsider,” Leslie told HuffPost.

The backbench MP had argued that a hard Brexit would result in yet more years of austerity even if Labour won the next election and underlined why single market membership was so crucial.

However, Corbyn’s spokesman stressed that the Lords amendment - backed by scores of Labour peers in defiance of their party whip - was unacceptable.

“As Keir [Starmer, Shadow Brexit Secretary] said at the weekend, the so-called Norway option has clear problems about it in relation to any kind of new trade deal that Britain might be able to negotiate, that we need to have a bespoke trade deal that doesn’t leave Britain simply as a rule taker and deals with the issues around the single market,” he said.

“He mentioned in response to the debate the issues around being a rule taker and the need to be guided by our priorities and the jobs-first Brexit that we set out as our strategic objective in the Brexit negotiations.

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Anti-Brexit demonstrators outside Parliament

“He emphasised the importance of uniting both Leave and Remain supporters over a Brexit negotiation and a negotiated final deal that meets the objectives not only of the Labour party but of actually most people in the country whether they voted Leave or Remain”.

Here is how the Labour spokesman engaged with reporters after the PLP meeting.

Reporter: “Is the EEA option dead?”

Labour spokesman: “Jeremy and Keir Starmer have made clear that from our point of view we have set out what kind of priorities we would have in the Brexit negotiations. And those include negotiating a new customs union with the EU, with Britain having a say in future trade deals and a new and strong relationship with the single market, retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union.

“As Keir said at the weekend, the so-called Norway option has clear problems about it in relation to any kind of new trade deal that Britain might be able to negotiate, that we need to have a bespoke trade deal that doesn’t leave Britain simply as a rule taker and deals with the issues around the single market.”

Reporter: “So is a fair takeaway from tonight’s PLP that the EEA is dead?

Labour spokesman: “We supported an abstention in the House of Lords over the EEA amendment and we set out what our priorities are and that will guide whatever we do in Parliament overall. But obviously whipping arrangements over particular amendments are decided nearer the time.”

Reporter: “What did Jeremy Corbyn specifically say about the options?”

Labour spokesman: “He mentioned in response to the debate the issues around being a rule taker and the need to be guided by our priorities and the jobs-first Brexit that we set out as our strategic objective in the Brexit negotiations.

“He emphasised the importance of uniting both Leave and Remain supporters over a Brexit negotiation and a negotiated final deal that meets the objectives not only of the Labour party but of actually most people in the country whether they voted Leave or Remain”

Reporter: “How was it that some MPs have come out of that meeting thinking on the one hand the EEA was dead, but others thinking it isn’t?”

Labour spokesman: “Obviously there are different views within the PLP and in the Labour party. But those differences, certainly in the leadership level are nothing remotely comparable to the differences in the Cabinet.”

Reporter: “So, is the EEA still on the table?”

Labour spokesman: “The position we have set out is what will guide us. You’ve seen what happened in relation to the EEA amendment in the Lords and although we wouldn’t talk about whipping arrangements and wouldn’t get to them until the amendment is on the table, I think our approach is pretty clear.” 

Reporter: “So it IS still on table?

Labour spokesman: “We’ve made clear, and Jeremy’s made clear, and Keir’s made clear, that the EEA packages packages currently in existence do not meet the priorities that we have set out and that the Norway option is not appropriate and will not work for the kind of Brexit we want to see.”

 

During the same meeting, Corbyn also for the first time acknowledged to his MPs that anti-semitism had been “a factor” in Labour’s failure to take the flagship Tory borough of Barnet in the local elections.

Asked by MP Wes Streeting about denials by MPs such as leftwinger Chris Williamson, the Labour leader said that the issue had played a ‘role’ in the results on May 3.

“As we’ve said since the local elections, we do think that anti-semitism played a role in the Barnet local election results,” the Labour spokesman said after the PLP meeting. “He’s made clear that he does believe it was a factor, yes.”

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Jewish protestors in Parliament Square

“We’ve made clear, Jeremy’s made clear, we will engage with the Jewish community at all levels and in all parts of it about this issue to tackle it and eradicate it.”

Corbyn has come under fire for refusing to visit Barnet Labour councillors to apologise after several of them lost their seats over the issue of Jew-hatred.

The spokesman said that John McDonnell, Shadow Communities Secretary Andrew Gwynne and party chair Ian Lavery would visit the north London borough, which has a large Jewish population.

Asked when Corbyn would make the trip himself, his spokesman replied” “I’m sure he will go to Barnet again, but at the moment there’s no plans.”