Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May discussed whether a post-Brexit customs union could deal with the unpopular Irish backstop in a “serious and engaged” hour-long meeting at the prime minister’s office in the House of Commons, according to Labour.
A spokesman for the Labour leader said there was a “serious engagement in the detail” by the prime minister, when asked if she indicated she was willing to compromise with the opposition over a post-Brexit customs union.
The two leaders also discussed the backstop extensively, and the spokesman said May was “interested in exploring the details of each element” of Labour’s Brexit proposals, which also include a strong single-market relationship and greater protection for workers’ rights.
The two party leaders will meet again soon, most likely within days, although there are considerable reservations on both sides as to whether it would be possible to complete a cross-party Brexit deal.
Labour’s briefing came within minutes of the meeting breaking up. There was no immediate response from Downing Street as to whether the prime minister accepted the opposition’s version of events.
Earlier, it emerged that May has asked cabinet ministers Steve Barclay and Greg Clark to consult Labour MPs and trade unions over proposals to introduce greater protection for workers’ rights in another attempt to woo opposition support.
The Brexit secretary and the business secretary will meet unions and Labour members over the next couple of days to discuss the possibility of future legislation, which would also cover enhanced environmental protections.
At a lunchtime briefing, Downing Street advisers pointed to remarks made by the prime minister during Tuesday’s Brexit debate, where she said: “The government will not allow the UK leaving the EU to result in any lowering of standards in relation to employment, environmental protection or health and safety.”
May also told the Commons she wanted parliament to be able to “consider any measure approved by EU institutions that strengthens any of those protections” after Brexit in a calculated bid to win over some Labour MPs.
The plans were also expected to be discussed at the afternoon meeting between May and Corbyn, the first time the two leaders have discussed the Brexit crisis this year – although the Labour leadership is highly sceptical as to whether her comments will satisfy key trade unions.
Downing Street nevertheless hopes to persuade a handful of pro-Brexit Labour MPs to support any final deal that May brings back to parliament, partly because it needs to offset a group of diehard Conservative MPs who will not vote for any deal with the EU.
The MPs No 10 will hope to target include the 25 who rebelled against the party whip either by voting against or abstaining on Yvette Cooper’s amendment that aimed to delay article 50 to buy time to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Fourteen MPs voted against Cooper, including the former minister Caroline Flint and Laura Smith, the MP for Crewe and Nantwich, as well as veteran Eurosceptics Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer and Dennis Skinner.
A further 11 MPs abstained including the junior shadow ministers Gloria De Piero and Melanie Onn, as well as Tracy Brabin, Judith Cummins, Yvonne Fovargue, Mike Kane, Emma Lewell-Buck, Jim McMahon, Ruth Smeeth, John Spellar and Stephen Twigg.
Anti-Brexit MPs expressed disappointment at the size of the rebellion, saying it had strengthened the prime minister’s hand in showing that there was not a united front opposed to her. “What’s the point of Tories coming across if we can’t keep our side together?” one MP said.
Labour indicated there would be little meaningful sanction against those who defied the party whip on Cooper on Tuesday night. A party spokesman said they would be “spoken to by the whips’ office in the next few days”.
The spokesman added that Corbyn would press May to consider supporting a customs union with the EU as a way to deal with the Irish backstop that is so unpopular on the Tory right.
He added that the Labour leader “had no confidence” in the idea that the prime minister could otherwise secure any concessions from EU member states over the next fortnight in terms of eliminating the backstop from the draft withdrawal agreement, that covers the UK’s exit from the EU.