Trade union leaders and the Labour party called on Theresa May to ensure that leaving the EU does not hurt ordinary people, as she triggered the two-year Brexit negotiations today.
A letter signed by the prime minister was hand-delivered to European council president, Donald Tusk, at 12.30pm this afternoon, beginning a process that will sever the UK’s 44-year-old relationship with the European project.
Addressing MP’s in the House of Commons, May pledged to represent all UK citizens during the negotiations.
She said, “I have set out a clear and ambitious plan for the negotiations ahead. It is a plan for a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union.”
Despite a softening of language – May has threatened to lower corporation tax to attract business away from Europe if negotiations do not go well and has stated that “no deal is better than a bad deal” – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the Conservatives could not be trusted over Brexit.
He said, “If the prime minister is to unite this country, as she says she aims to do, the government needs to listen, consult and represent the whole country, not just the hard-line Tory ideologues on her own benches.
“The Conservatives want to use Brexit to turn our country into a low wage tax haven. Labour is determined to invest in a high skill, high tech, high wage future, to rebuild and transform Britain, so no one and no community is left behind.
“The direction the prime minister is threatening to take this country is both reckless and damaging and Labour will not give this government a free hand to use Brexit to attack rights and protections, cut services and create a tax dodgers’ paradise.”
Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, called on the government to end the uncertainty plaguing Britain’s economy by prioritising single market and custom union access and rescinding the threats it has made in the run up to the negotiations.
McCluskey, said, “For the jobs and prosperity of the people of this country, the government must make it clear that its priority is to secure maximum access to present day customs and market access arrangements, and that far from treating migrant workers as bargaining chips, their worth to our economy is understood and will be safeguarded. We urge them to make it abundantly clear: there will be no ‘hard’ Brexit.”
The TUC said that the government must seek to protect jobs and workers’ rights during the negotiations.
“The best deal will guarantee that hardworking Brits keep their hard-won rights at work — and that in the years to come they won’t miss out on protections that Dutch, Spanish and German workers get,” TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.
“The best deal has to protect good jobs, with decent wages, by keeping our trade free from tariffs and unnecessary bureaucracy. And it has to end the disgraceful uncertainty for workers from other EU nations who’ve made the UK their home.”
O’Grady added, “The Brexit deal will define Britain’s future for a generation. We owe it to ourselves and our children to take the time needed to get it right.”
The triggering of Article 50 was also marked by in-fighting and contradictory statements from within the top ranks of the Tory party.
Yesterday, Lord Heseltine blasted Theresa May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” position, equating it to “leaving port in the teeth of the storm. To leave Europe with no deal with our largest market would be just such a folly.”
Meanwhile chancellor Philip Hammond today appeared to contradict the hard Brexit rhetoric espoused by other Tory ministers, stating that “we can’t have our cake and eat it”.
His comments contrast with those of foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who claimed in October that “our policy is having our cake and eating it” and said that crashing out of the negotiations onto World Trade Organisation rules would be “perfectly ok”.