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19 September 2023

What’s behind Labour’s new Brexit position?

Keir Starmer has assembled a more pro-European front bench to confront the issue with greater confidence.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Keir Starmer has broken his silence on Brexit and pledged a better trading deal with the EU should Labour win the next general election.

Boris Johnson’s agreement with the bloc, the implementation of which is due to be reviewed in 2025, was “too thin” and could be moulded into a “much better” deal, the opposition leader has told the Financial Times.

Starmer has previously ruled out the UK rejoining the single market or customs union, and that position remains unchanged, but he has hinted at a closer trading relationship and emphasised the need to repair Britain’s relationship with Europe for the sake of younger generations. There is speculation that Labour would take steps such as loosening visa rules for young people, align Britain with some EU rules to make trade easier or seek access to more parts of the single market.

With Labour maintaining a 20-point lead over the Tories, and polls showing a majority of voters believe Brexit was a mistake, the party believes now is the time to confront the issue. Whether a Starmer government would be prepared to renegotiate the Brexit deal is a question that will be asked repeatedly by Tory MPs during the election campaign. Labour could not afford to ignore the subject until then. 

Starmer’s intervention follows a series of separate announcements on how Labour would reduce Channel crossings, such as strengthening terror laws to deal with people smugglers and brokering a returns agreement on asylum seekers with the EU.

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[See also: Keir Starmer’s Brexit delusion]

This does not mean the public is united on Brexit and immigration, or that the issues have been transformed into safe spaces for Labour, but rather that Starmer is testing whether compromise is possible.

The recent shadow cabinet reshuffle was largely depicted as the “return of the Blairites”. But while key figures from the liberal wing of the party, such as Liz Kendall and Pat McFadden, were promoted, one of Starmer’s hidden motives may have been to elevate pro-Europeans. Hilary Benn, who chaired Labour’s Remain campaign in 2016, was made shadow Northern Ireland secretary, for instance, while Lisa Nandy, regarded as the leading opponent of a second Brexit referendum, was demoted. McFadden, who is now Labour’s national campaign coordinator, and Chris Bryant, who joined the front bench as shadow minister for creative industries and digital, are also long-standing pro-Europeans. 

Starmer appears, however, to be guarding against claims of a “Brexit betrayal”, aware that a renegotiated Brexit deal would need broad support. Jonathan Reynolds, whose brief now includes business and trade, represents a constituency (Stalybridge and Hyde) that backed Leave by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Nick Thomas-Symonds, a trusted Starmer ally, has been moved to a Cabinet Office role with responsibility for Brexit. It is easy to imagine both politicians, alongside the staunch Remainer and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, forming the core of a balanced negotiating team.

Labour’s review is focused on the implementation of the Brexit deal, rather than a more fundamental reconstruction – but Remainers regard it as a significant step. “Political and diplomatic relations are about the art of the possible and this moment offers us the opportunity for a reset,” said Naomi Smith of the campaign group Best for Britain.

Brexit scepticism has grown rapidly since the UK formally left the European Union in January 2020. In June, a YouGov poll found that 62 per cent of voters thought leaving the EU had been “more of a failure” than a success. Opposition to the status quo is strongest among the young. A remarkable 86 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds back rejoining the bloc.

Having gained strongly pro-Brexit areas such as Medway and Stoke in this year’s local elections, Labour seems to feel able to speak with confidence on an issue that was once toxic for the party. 

[See also: Welcome to Doppelgänger Britain – a world without Brexit]

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