HARLOW, England (Reuters) - British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday of seeking to hijack Brexit to unleash a Thatcherite bonfire of regulation that would usher in what he cast as a much harsher brand of American-style capitalism.
Britain is heading toward a deeply unpredictable Christmas election on Dec. 12 that could decide the fate of both its planned departure from the European Union and the future of the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Corbyn, a 70-year old socialist campaigner, is proposing an overthrow of what he casts as a venal elite led by Johnson which he says wants to use Brexit as a Trojan horse to turn the United Kingdom into a deregulated paradise for global capital.
He invoked the memory of late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and said Johnson wanted to strike a trade deal with U.S. President Donald Trump that would sell off parts of the National Health Service (NHS).
“What Boris Johnson’s Conservatives want is to hijack Brexit to unleash Thatcherism on steroids,” Corbyn told supporters in Harlow, a suburb northeast of London which voted strongly in favor of leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum. The nationwide margin was 52%-48% in favor of Leave.
“A vote for Johnson’s Conservatives is a vote to betray our NHS in a sell-out to Trump,” he said, to chants of “not for sale, not for sale” from the audience.
“They want a race to the bottom in standards and protections. They want to move us toward a more deregulated American model of how to run the economy.”
“Iron Lady” Thatcher radically transformed the British economy along free-market lines but was hated by some voters for crushing the trade unions and privatizing swathes of industry.
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 assertion 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, Trump, who has previously said everything should be negotiable in trade talks, denied Labour’s claims that the NHS would be up for grabs.
After rejecting calls from many senior Labour figures to take a definitive position against leaving the EU, Corbyn is focused on underscoring Johnson’s failure to deliver on his promise of Brexit on Oct. 31 and the need to get on and tackle domestic issues such as a shortage of affordable housing.
Corbyn, whose party is trailing the Conservatives in opinion polls, 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.
“People sometimes accuse me of trying to talk to both sides at once in the Brexit debate; to people who voted leave and remain. You know what? They’re right. Why would I only want to talk to half the country?” he said.
“It’s Labour that’s determined to bring a divided country together.”
Corbyn says if elected he would negotiate a new deal with the EU that would keep Britain more closely aligned economically with the bloc and do more to protect workers. He would then put it to the people in another referendum.
He has promised to “get Brexit sorted” within six months, a deadline he said on Tuesday was “realistic”.
“I am confident that such a deal can be secured and secured quickly. That deal will then be put to a referendum with Remain as the other option,” said the party’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, who is more overtly in favor of staying in the EU.
“Under a Labour government: Remain will be on the ballot paper.”
Johnson says Labour’s policy, which includes the possibility of campaigning against its own Brexit deal in a second referendum, is too vague and creates more uncertainty.
A YouGov poll published on Tuesday found 65% of voters were unclear about Labour’s Brexit position.
“Your current position seems to be that you want to go back to square one,” Johnson said in a letter to Corbyn late on Monday, which listed five Brexit questions he wanted Corbyn to answer. “Now the time has come for you to come clean and explain what your plan really is.”
Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Heinrich