Jeremy Corbyn has defiantly restated Labour’s policy of leading Britain out of the European Union with a refashioned Brexit deal, shrugging off intense pressure from Labour MPs and activists for the party to throw its weight behind a second referendum.
The Labour leader insisted that even if his party won a snap general election in the new year, he would seek to go to Brussels and try to secure a better deal – if possible, in time to allow Brexit to go ahead on 29 March.
“You’d have to go back and negotiate, and see what the timetable would be,” he said. In an exclusive interview, Corbyn also:
admitted to being “extremely angry” in the House of Commons on Wednesday, when he denied calling Theresa May a “stupid woman”.
pledged an end to the selection process that led to the Peterborough MP, Fiona Onasanya, who has been convicted of perverting the course of justice, emerging as a candidate.
announced that Labour would repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act that is used by the authorities to target beggars and rough sleepers.
Twenty-four hours after the furore in the House of Commons in which he was accused of insulting the prime minister, the Labour leader appeared much more relaxed on a visit to the Hope Centre, a homelessness charity in Northampton whose campaign against eviction he is supporting.
He admitted he had lost his temper when confronted with a wall of jeering Conservative MPs at prime minister’s questions after May had accused him of lacking a clear Brexit policy.
“I was extremely angry: the last point I’d made was, they’d suddenly found £4bn to prepare for no deal. £4bn. At the same time, police officers have lost their jobs; 100,000 vacancies in the NHS, a housing crisis; a homeless man dies on the steps of Westminster; and she and the Conservative party turned the whole thing into some pantomime joke,” he said.
Conservative MPs challenged Corbyn’s claim that he muttered “stupid people” and not “stupid woman”, as many viewers of video footage believed.
But he was unrepentant. “It’s interesting their sudden concern about these matters. Where is their concern about the homeless people of this country?” he said, repeatedly jabbing a finger on the table to emphasise his point. “Where is their concern about universal credit? Where is their concern about 200,000 children living in poverty in this country?”
The prime minister was taunting Corbyn for declining to table a motion of no confidence in her government – as some shadow cabinet ministers wanted him to do.
Instead, he exasperated many of his own MPs by putting down a symbolic motion criticising the prime minister – which the government refused to allow time to debate.
“The reason I tabled the motion in the way I did was to try and maximise support around the specifics of the vote in the House,” he said. “The reason I took that judgment is I thought it was the best way and the best chance.”
With the clock running down to 29 March, when Britain is due to leave the EU, a vocal group of Labour MPs – including some in the shadow cabinet – are pushing for the leadership to endorse the idea of a “people’s vote”.
But asked if he could imagine a referendum emerging as a solution if it becomes clear that parliament is deadlocked – as the work and pensions secretary, Amber Rudd, mooted this week – he said: “I think we should vote down this deal; we should then go back to the EU with a discussion about a customs union.”
As to what stance Labour would take if a referendum were held, Corbyn said, “it would be a matter for the party to decide what the policy would be; but my proposal at this moment is that we go forward, trying to get a customs union with the EU, in which we would be able to be proper trading partners.”
And he struck a distinctly Eurosceptic note by again highlighting Labour’s concerns about the state aid rules that form part of the architecture of the single market.
“I think the state aid rules do need to be looked at again, because quite clearly, if you want to regenerate an economy, as we would want to do in government, then I don’t want to be told by somebody else that we can’t use state aid in order to be able to develop industry in this country,” he said.
Neither is he willing to countenance the idea that Labour should support May’s deal, to avoid Britain crashing out with no deal in place at all – a move the prime minister has repeatedly said is in the “national interest”.
“The national interest is for parliament to have a vote on this deal now,” Corbyn said, pointing out that it was May who had pulled the vote, which MPs had agreed to hold on 11 December.
“They reneged on that. And then she suddenly turns round and starts accusing us of playing politics with it. She’s the one that reneged on the deal. Not me.”
In his party conference speech, Corbyn surprised some activists by saying Labour could back the prime minister’s deal if she secured a permanent customs union and offered stronger assurances on workers’ rights and environmental standards.
He said that offer remains open. “It’s there: at no stage since I made that in October has the government been in touch with us at all.”
To those activists who support his leadership but ardently hope he will stop Brexit, Corbyn said: “We have to recognise a number of things. One is, as a party, about 60% of Labour voters voted remain; about 40% voted leave. We have to recognise why people voted in those directions.”
“Labour is unique as a party, because it’s got to bring all sides together – hence my view on a customs union, on access to the market.”
In Northampton, after hearing the personal stories of three of the Hope Centre’s clients, Corbyn said Labour would act quickly to end rough sleeping, which has more than doubled since 2010 to 4,751 – a figure charities believe is a drastic underestimate.
The shadow housing secretary, John Healey, has announced that a Labour government would allocate £100m to buy emergency cold-weather accommodation for rough sleepers, part-funded by a levy on second homes.
Corbyn said he would also repeal the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which criminalises rough sleeping and begging. It dates from the period of the Napoleonic wars, when destitute soldiers were returning from the battlefield – but was invoked almost 3,000 times in 2016.
“It’s an absolute relic of the kind of politics of the Duke of Wellington, being used against people now, on the streets of this country. Can’t we just move on from the Duke of Wellington, and get rid of it?” he said.
He said he was “very, very disappointed, and very sad” about the case of Onasanya, who was suspended from the party after being found guilty of repeatedly lying to avoid a speeding ticket.
Onasanya, along with the Sheffield Hallam MP, Jared O’Mara, who remains an MP despite resigning from Labour, was selected for 2017’s snap election by a small panel of members of the party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC).
“In any future election, we’ll have a much more democratic process,” Corbyn said. “It was no secret I was not happy with NEC panels selecting candidates.” He added, “I’m very determined that the party membership should be enfranchised in doing this. I’m very clear about that.”
He said Labour was “very ready” to fight a general election, if the impasse at Westminster resulted in a snap poll – and asked if he was ready to become prime minister, he replied: “Yes. Absolutely.”
He joked that he would take with him to Downing Street a reconditioned garden fork, bought during his visit from a social enterprise run from the Hope Centre’s workshop.
Meanwhile, with business at Westminster suspended for the Christmas break, Corbyn said: “I’ve got an appointment with my allotment on Sunday.”
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