Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer yesterday ruled out the possibility that the UK would re-join the European Union under a Labour government. In his speech to the Centre for European Reform, he vowed to “move on from arguments of the past” and would aim to “make Brexit work”, saying that Labour would not push for the UK to re-join the single market or the customs union, or to become looped into free movement rules.
Starmer Outlines Brexit Position
The overwhelming theme of the speech was a stated desire to “go forwards, not backwards”, as the Labour leader explained the Conservative Brexit deal was leading to economic stagnation. He said that rather than looking backwards, Labour would be focused on “unblocking” the deal of this government, by removing barriers to trade with the EU and taking steps to resolve issues around the Northern Ireland protocol. He also suggested that the EU would be more likely to negotiate with a Labour government, perceiving him as a more “honest broker”.
Sir Keir said: “The government have missed Brexit opportunities time and time again. It beggars belief that during a cost of living crisis that they still haven’t cut VAT on energy bills.
“Labour will be sharper than this. We will use our flexibility outside of the EU to ensure British regulation is adapted to suit British needs.”
While the speech was primarily designed to step up the pressure on Boris Johnson over his handling of Brexit, it also sought to put to rest internal divisions within the Labour party over what a Labour government would do on this issue.
Last week, London Mayor Sadiq Khan suggested that the UK should look to re-join the EU single market, arguing that Brexit was “the biggest piece of self-inflicted harm ever done to a country.”
Starmer has faced some criticism in recent months over his hesitancy to attack the Prime Minister on the topic, in part because of his own history of very diverse beliefs on the issue. He has previously pushed for a second referendum and the return of free movement, but then reversed his position a year later. As Shadow Brexit Secretary in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, Starmer said that the party should advocate to stay in the EU in any second referendum.
However Starmer hopes that this speech will turn a political leaf of sorts, allowing him to renew criticism of the Government for their handling of Brexit, and in particular recent controversies around the Northern Ireland protocol, without being accused of secretly wanting Labour to re-join the EU.
Ben Bradshaw, a leading pro-EU voice within the Labour party described Starmer’s approach as “absolutely right”. He said: “There is no prospect of us re-joining the EU, single market or customs union anytime soon, not least because [Boris] Johnson has so completely destroyed trust with our European neighbours that any such move would be on far worse terms than those we had before we left.
“There is, however, plenty that we can do to reduce the enormous damage being done to our economy and our relationship with our allies, by fixing the many problems with Johnson’s botched Brexit deal.”
At a very fundamental level, Brexit is never an issue that Labour have concretely owned, or made their stance indisputably clear. Even during campaigning for the referendum, Jeremy Corbyn remained conspicuously quiet on the issue, and ever since the party has had to wrestle with accepting the result of the referendum, despite the vast majority of their MPs being self-described pro-EU.
However, this speech looks to turn the page on this, to make peace with Brexit. This will be a key move in Labour’s attempts to reclaim the support of ‘Red Wall’ voters that turned blue in 2019, many of whom voted for Brexit in extremely high numbers. In nailing Labour’s colours to the mast on this issue, he will hope to build trust in these areas again.