May keeps door open to talks with Corbyn as she tries to buy more time

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Theresa May has called for Brexit talks with Labour “as soon as possible”, while resisting Jeremy Corbyn’s demands for a full customs union with the EU but leaving the door open to cooperation between the two parties in search of a breakthrough.

In her formal response to a letter from the Labour leader setting out a possible compromise, the Prime Minister insisted the UK must have an independent trade policy but sought to reassure Mr Corbyn on workers’ rights and the role of MPs in shaping a future trade deal with the EU.

Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA Wire

Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: Clodagh Kilcoyne/PA Wire

It comes as the government promised MPs more Brexit votes before the end of February amid claims Mrs May is trying to run down the clock.

Labour will seek to force Mrs May into a decisive second Commons showdown on her Brexit deal by February 26.

The Prime Minister is instead offering MPs a further chance to vote on amendments to her Brexit strategy on February 27 in order to avoid a potential Cabinet split this week.

On Thursday MPs will consider a motion on Brexit and a series of amendments, which will probably include shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer’s attempt to impose a new deadline for a Commons vote on the deal.

But in an effort to see off attempts to bind the government’s hands, Downing Street is promising another opportunity to table amendments, which are likely to include measures aimed at taking a no-deal Brexit off the table, on February 27.

The move is aimed at postponing a rebellion by ministers who are committed to removing the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

However, there is no commitment to hold a binding vote on the deal itself by the end of the month. Mr Starmer said his plan was necessary to put a “hard stop” to Mrs May “running down the clock” before the March 29 deadline.

He told The Sunday Times he fears the Prime Minister is “pretending to make progress” but actually intends to return to Parliament after the European Council summit the week before Brexit with the choice of “deal or no deal”.

“We can’t allow that to happen,” he said. “There needs to be a day when Parliament says, ‘That’s it, enough is enough’.”

Last week Mr Corbyn wrote to Mrs May setting out five demands – including a permanent customs union and close alignment with the single market – that would have to be met for his MPs to support a deal.

Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson told The Andrew Marr Show that if those conditions were not met his party could move to supporting a second referendum.

“It seems to me we’re now at the point where we can have meaningful talks to get a deal between the main political party leaders,” he said.

“Or the only way to break the impasse is to have a public vote, and that remains our policy.”

The Government is stepping up efforts to persuade the EU to accept changes to the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay is meeting EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier today and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt will visit Paris and Warsaw for talks this week.