Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, is calling on the government to fight to keep Britain in the single market, as senior opposition politicians step up the pressure on Theresa May for a softer Brexit after her Commons majority was wiped out at the general election.
In a statement, Khan said: “The prime minister sought a mandate from the British people for her version of hard Brexit but the electorate registered their opposition. It’s time she heeded the message.
“The Brexit goalposts have been moved. The government must now listen to the will of the people by putting aside ideology, and negotiating a sensible Brexit that ensures continued membership of the single market.”
He said continued single market membership represented the best chance to preserve London’s tech, pharmaceutical and financial services industries.
Some of the prime minister’s own cabinet colleagues, including the chancellor, Philip Hammond, appear to have taken the election result as a vindication of their view that the economy must take priority in the negotiations, which started on Monday.
Hammond told the BBC on Thursday morning, as May prepared to travel to Brussels to meet her EU counterparts, that transitional arrangements as the UK leaves could last as long as four years, to avoid a “cliff edge” for businesses.
Khan’s intervention comes as a cross-party group of more than 40 opposition MPs calls for Britain to remain in the customs union, which allows goods to pass freely across borders – including between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
An early day motion (EDM) tabled by Labour MPs including Stephen Doughty and Chuka Umunna, points out the benefits of the customs union – including the maintenance of a soft border in Ireland – and urges the government to “negotiate for the UK to remain a member of the EU customs union following the government’s withdrawal from the EU”.
It has already been signed by more than 40 MPs, including potential Liberal Democrat leadership contender Ed Davey, the SNP’s Stephen Gethins, and Green co-leader Caroline Lucas, as well as a cross-section of Labour MPs. EDMs, tabled in parliament, are a way for MPs to signal their strength of feeling about a subject.
Privately, some Conservative MPs are also supportive of the idea of remaining in the customs union. Wednesday’s Queen’s speech included eight Brexit bills, which the government hopes to pass over the next two years, including a customs bill – but without a majority the government will have to rely on the Democratic Unionist party’s 10 MPs, as well as solid support from its own backbenchers, to get the legislation through the Commons.
In her Lancaster House speech in January, the prime minister announced that she planned to leave the most important aspects of the customs union so that the UK could negotiate its own trade deals with other nations.
Earlier this week, a group of 30 Labour MPs signalled their intention to campaign for the UK to remain in the single market – a different position from the party’s frontbench, which believes single market membership will lapse when the UK leaves, and seeks tariff-free trade but not full membership.
But the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, has said Labour was willing to work with backbenchers from any party to thwart the prime minister’s pre-election prospectus for Brexit, which made controlling immigration the first priority.