LONDON (Reuters) – Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn will on Tuesday accuse Britain’s Conservatives of attempting to hijack Brexit to unleash a Thatcherite bonfire of regulation, as he seeks to rally core voters put off by Labour’s ambiguous stance on the EU divorce.
In a major campaign speech for a snap election on Dec. 12, Corbyn will lay the groundwork for his center-left party to campaign as safeguards of Britain’s welfare state and worker protections, after rejecting calls from many senior Labour figures to take a definitive position against leaving the EU.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will use Brexit to “unleash Thatcherism on steroids”, Corbyn will say in the speech in a suburb northeast of London, referring to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher who privatized many state-owned industries.
Thatcher is a hate figure in many of the working class communities that voted in 2016 to leave the EU, where Johnson hopes to win seats from Labour to build a pro-Brexit majority.
Corbyn, whose party is trailing the Conservatives in opinion polls, will say Johnson’s government would include the National Health Service (NHS) in a post-Brexit U.S. trade deal.
“This threat to our NHS isn’t a mistake. It’s not happening by accident. The threat is there because Boris Johnson’s Conservatives want to hijack Brexit to sell out the NHS and sell out working people by stripping away their rights,” he will say in the speech, according to his office. “They want a race to the bottom in standards and protections.”
More than three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, both of its main political parties have suffered from division over Brexit. But while Johnson has now firmly positioned his Conservatives behind his call to “get Brexit done”, Corbyn has kept Labour’s stance open.
He says if elected he would negotiate a new deal with the EU that would do more to protect workers, then put it to the people in another referendum, alongside the option to stay in the bloc.
“A Labour government will get Brexit sorted within six months by giving you, the British people, the final say,” Corbyn will say. “So 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.”
Johnson says the policy is too vague and creates more uncertainty.
“Your current position seems to be that you want to go back to square one,” Johnson said in a letter to Corbyn, which listed five Brexit questions he wanted Corbyn to answer.
Several senior Labour figures have called for the party to oppose Brexit altogether, worried it could lose votes to an explicitly pro-European third party, the Liberal Democrats. But Corbyn’s allies fear that would abandon too many voters who want to leave the EU.
Corbyn hopes to turn the debate from whether Brexit should happen to what kind of country Britain will be, regardless of how it resolves its relationship with the EU.
As Britain heads towards its first Christmas election since 1923, voters have a choice between two of the most unconventional British politicians of recent years, who offer starkly different visions for the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Corbyn, 70, says Johnson will seek to recast Britain into a deregulated playground for ‘plutocrats’, where workers have few rights. Johnson, 55, says Corbyn, an unabashed leftist, will sink the economy with 1970’s-style socialist state planning.
Under Britain’s NHS, hospitals are owned by the state and treatment is free. Voters cite protecting it as the second most important issue after Brexit. Labour says the Conservatives want to move to an expensive, privately-owned U.S.-style system.
Johnson has repeatedly said the NHS would not be on the table in trade talks. One of his most senior ministers, Michael Gove, said Corbyn’s claim that American drug companies could carve up parts of the NHS was “the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever heard in my 52 years on this earth”.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has previously said everything should be on the table in trade talks, denied Labour’s claims that the NHS would be up for grabs, telling LBC radio: “It’s not for us to have anything to do with your healthcare system.”
(The story is refiled to remove extra word in first paragraph and fixes typo in paragraph 12)