Corbyn offer hailed in search for exit from Brexit deadlock

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media ahead of talks with Northern Ireland's five main political parties at the Irish Goverment residence in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday February 8, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media ahead of talks with Northern Ireland's five main political parties at the Irish Goverment residence in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday February 8, 2019. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
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Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar described a compromise Brexit proposal from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as “very interesting” ahead of a meeting with Theresa May in Dublin last night.

The Taoiseach said the Labour leader “fleshed out a potential future relationship” by offering to support a Brexit deal that includes a permanent customs union between the UK and the EU, largely eliminating the issue of the Irish border.

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But after a day of meetings with Northern Irish political leaders in Belfast, Mr Varadkar insisted his dinner with the Prime Minister was not a negotiation, and repeated the EU line that the existing Withdrawal Agreement would not be reopened.

It comes amid reports a secret Whitehall group has been working on emergency plans to kick-start the economy in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

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The “Project After” group is said to have been put together by the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, Sir Mark Sedwill, with senior figures from the Treasury, Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for International Trade.

According to reports in the Financial Times, the options said to have been considered by the group – which has been working since the summer and is in close contact with the Bank of England – range from cutting taxes and boosting investment to slashing tariffs.

“It’s basically a Doomsday list of economic levers we could pull if the economy is about to tank,” one source was quoted as saying.

Ahead of last night’s meeting, Mr Varadkar said: “I think everybody wants to avoid no deal, everybody wants to avoid a hard border and everybody wants to continue to have a very close political and economic relationship between Britain and Ireland no matter want happens.”

Commenting on the Labour leader’s proposals, set out in a letter to Mrs May this week, the Taoiseach added: “I think what Jeremy Corbyn has done is fleshed out a potential future relationship which is one that would mean a future relationship that is very close between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and I think in that regard they are very interesting.”

Downing Street said the dinner, which follows a visit by Mrs May to Brussels to meet EU leaders, would see the Prime Minister “emphasising what we are looking for, seeking the legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that parliament said it needs to approve the deal”.
Number 10 has said ministers are looking “with interest” at Mr Corbyn’s letter, but say there are still “very considerable points of difference” with Labour over the blueprint.

Mrs May was joined for the private dinner at Farmleigh House by the UK’s Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins and her chief of staff, Gavin Barwell.

Earlier, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox held talks in Dublin with his Irish counterpart, Seamus Woulfe.

Mr Cox has been leading work within Whitehall on providing either a time limit on the controversial “backstop” insurance policy for the Irish border, or giving the UK an exit mechanism from it.