Jeremy Corbyn has told Theresa May he will back a Brexit deal she brings back from Europe as long as it means Britain is staying in a customs union, protecting jobs, workers rights and standards for the environment.
The Labour leader’s pledge appears to hold out a lifeline to a prime minister who finds herself at the mercy of Tory Brexiteers who have vowed to torpedo her proposals.
But it also represents an adjustment in Labour’s Brexit rhetoric, coming after a week in which shadow cabinet minister Sir Keir Starmer indicated his party was likely to vote down any deal Ms May secured.
Mr Corbyn also used his conference speech to try and draw a line under the antisemitism row dogging his party, telling the Jewish community “we are your ally” and committing a Labour government to provide resources to protect it.
He argued only radical policies promised by Labour in Liverpool could prevent the return of populist xenophobia to the UK, and accused both Theresa May and Boris Johnson of encouraging them.
Mr Corbyn’s speech comes after a week in which Sir Keir won a hard-fought consensus that the party would back a new referendum if Ms May’s deal is voted down by parliament and there is no general election – though a new row erupted over whether any new vote would contain an option to Remain, with the decision on that deferred.
The leader reasserted the position that all options for the referendum remained open, albeit fleetingly and without actually referring to a referendum, before going on to what would be the key Brexit message from his speech.
He said: “Let me also reach out to the prime minister, who is currently doing the negotiating.
“Brexit is about the future of our country and our vital interests. It is not about leadership squabbles or parliamentary posturing.
“If you deliver a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, if you protect jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards – then we will support that sensible deal. A deal that would be backed by most of the business world and trade unions too.”
The comment took a different tone from the shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir who gave a heavy signal in his own speech that Labour would oppose any deal Ms May brings back, as it would be unlikely to meet the party’s six tests.
They include one that the prime minister’s deal should deliver the exact the same benefits as the single market and customs union, but they were not referred to by Mr Corbyn.
The leader’s language potentially represents an attempt to maintain unity, by signalling to Labour voters who backed Leave that the party is not trying to wreck Brexit, despite its policies shifting towards stronger support for a new referendum this week.
At the same time Labour strategists will be aware that any sign that Ms May would work with Mr Corbyn to get her plans through parliament, would enrage Tory Brexiteers who are attempting to push her into a more eurosceptic position.
The speech was peppered with standing ovations for Mr Corbyn from his supporters, with none louder than during the section in which he gave full-throated support for the Palestinian cause.
But he also dedicated a significant section of his speech to an attempt to put an end to the months long antisemitism crisis that even Labour insiders accept has damaged their party’s reputation.
Citing how he recently visited the former Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, he said: “I say this to all in the Jewish community – this party, this movement, will always be implacable campaigners against antisemitism and racism in all its forms. We are your ally.
“And the next Labour government will guarantee whatever support necessary to ensure the security of Jewish community centres and places of worship, as we will for any other community experiencing hateful behaviour and physical attacks.”
He also used the section to launch an attack on Ms May’s ‘hostile environment’ policies which he branded a “shameful brainchild of the present prime minister” that led to the Windrush scandal and lashed out at Conservative support for the far-right government of Hungary’s Viktor Orban.
Another broadside was saved for Boris Johnson whom he accused of islamophobia and “dog whistle jibes”, following his articles containing offensive comments about burqas, niqabs and suicide vests.
Underlining the leftwing agenda set out by his party this week – more free childcare, worker representation on boards and shareholding, public ownership, an expansion in green energy and a second-homes tax – he said only radical policies could now stop populism and xenophobia taking hold.
But he had a clear message for delegates in the hall who have squabbled over how to move forward: “If we are to get the chance to put those values into practice in government we are going to need unity to do it.
“Our movement has achieved nothing when divided. The only winners have been the rich and the party of the rich, the Conservatives.”
Apparently focusing in particular on the ferocity and aggression that has characterised internal Labour rows in recent weeks, Mr Corbyn said: “Real unity is based on the freedom to disagree and debate and then come together around democratic decisions, as we have done this week.
“So we need to foster a much greater culture of tolerance. An end to abuse, online and in person. We must learn to listen a bit more, and shout a lot less.”
Brandon Lewis MP, chairman of the Conservative Party, responded to the speech by saying Mr Corbyn had shown “at every turn he is unfit to govern”.
He went on: “All he offers are failed ideas that didn’t work in the past and would leave working families paying the price with higher taxes, more debt and more waste – just like last time.
“He confirmed Labour are opening the door to re-running the referendum, which would take us all back to square one.
“And he didn’t even apologise to Jewish people for his total failure to tackle the anti-Jewish racism that is rife in the Labour Party.”
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