Prime minister Boris Johnson and his main rival, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, traded blows over Brexit as the UK prepares to vote next month on which of the two men should lead it out of the European Union.
Johnson wrote an open letter to Corbyn asking him to clarify his strategy for the divorce while the Labour leader accused the prime minister of “hijacking” Brexit to pursue an agenda of cutting workers rights and increasing the role of US companies in the National Health Service.
The tone was set for a bruising campaign in the run-up to the December 12 vote.
“What Boris Johnson’s Conservatives want is to hijack Brexit to unleash Thatcherism on steroids,” Corbyn was expected to say in a speech on Tuesday, according to extracts released by his office.
“They want a race to the bottom in standards and protections. They want to move us towards a more deregulated American model of how to run the economy.”
Healthcare, vacations and workplace safety will come under threat if Johnson gets the “Trump deal Brexit” he wants, Corbyn was expected to say in a speech to activists in Southeast England.
Johnson, for his part, wrote an open letter to the Labour leader demanding to know what his plan is for leaving the EU. He accused him of creating more “dither and delay” for businesses and families desperate to see Brexit “done.”
“I am clear about my Brexit policy and how we will help this country move on — it is time for the Labour Party to be clear too,” Johnson wrote.
“We cannot afford to spend 2020 fighting two more referendums offering the public more of the same confusion and indecision that have plagued the last three years.”
The prime minister said he would see through his deal, agreed with the EU on October 17, and leave the bloc by the end of January, enabling government to focus voters’ priorities of schools, policing and the NHS.
He asked Corbyn a series of questions about his policy, including whether Labour wants to remain in the EU’s customs union and if the party believes the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum should be respected. Johnson also queried the cost of the national vote Corbyn wants to hold to approve any deal he agrees with the EU.
Labour’s policy, decided by delegates at the party’s conference in September, is to renegotiate a deal with the EU then put it to a referendum with remaining in the EU as the other option. The party would not decide which side to support until the deal was done, but Corbyn says the whole process could be completed in six months.
Agreeing a new deal “will take no longer than three months because the deal will be based on terms we’ve already discussed with the EU, including a new customs union, a close single market relationship and guarantees of rights and protections,” Corbyn will say. “If you want to leave the EU without trashing our economy or selling out our NHS you’ll be able to vote for it. If you want to remain in the EU, you’ll be able to vote for that.”
Jo Swinson, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was also expected to be speaking on Tuesday.
She threatened legal action against the broadcaster ITV after she was left out of its planned leaders TV debate during the election campaign. She accused Johnson and Corbyn of trying to shut her out. “I should be in this debate, if they’re refusing to debate me it looks like they’re sexist, or they’re scared, or possibly both,” Swinson said.