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13 January 2023

Sadiq Khan’s Brexit intervention is a headache for Keir Starmer

The London mayor’s call for the UK to rejoin the single market and customs union puts him at odds with Labour policy.

By Zoë Grünewald

Sadiq Khan called last night (12 January) for a “pragmatic debate” about the UK rejoining the European single market and customs union, stating that an “unnecessarily hardline version of Brexit is having a detrimental effect on our capital and country”.

In his speech at Mansion House in the City of London, Khan criticised politicians for refusing to talk about Brexit and accused ministers of having “developed selective amnesia when it comes to one of the root causes of our problems”. The Mayor of London said leaving the EU had hurt the capital and the country. It had, he said, “weakened our economy, fractured our union and diminished our reputation”.

“The number of businesses in our city experiencing at least one skills shortage has now risen to almost seven in ten,” he said. “Meanwhile, the number of jobs in our city held by EU-born workers has fallen by over 80,000, putting huge strain on crucial sectors such as hospitality and construction.”

Khan’s criticism of Brexit puts him at odds with both the government and Labour. Keir Starmer has said he intends to “make Brexit work” and outlined a plan in July that involved not rejoining the single market or the customs union and not reintroducing freedom of movement.

As Mayor of London, with the largest personal mandate of any politician in Europe, Khan does not have to appeal to the Leave strongholds that Starmer is seeking to win back for Labour. His focus will instead be on his bid to win a third term as mayor in 2024 (and 60 per cent of London voters backed Remain at the EU referendum).

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As a strong advocate of devolution, perhaps Starmer will feel comfortable with a local leader representing their area. Others may fear that Khan’s intervention will reopen Labour’s internal debate over Brexit as the party tries to show how it would govern.

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By contrast, Downing Street did not seem concerned by the mayor’s stance. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman simply said: “The British people set out their view back in 2016 and the government is busy enacting.”

[See also: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer still need to sell their visions to the public]

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