The two fault lines of Brexit exposed by Barry Gardiner’s Good Friday Agreement remarks

The shadow international trade secretary claimed the risks to peace of a hard border are being “played up”.


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Why did so many Remainers vote for Labour in the 2017 election? Was it Jeremy Corbyn's general bona fides with socially liberal voters, an anti-May vote, or about Brexit?

The real answer, of course, is “all of the above”, with interesting questions raised over which of those pulls is the most important.

But Barry Gardiner has done his bit for the sum of human knowledge after being caught on tape by Labour website The Red Roar talking about the Good Friday Agreement, and Ireland's concerns about it, in language more commonly associated with the DUP. The risks to peace of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland are being played up because of the economic consequences, the shadow international trade secretary has claimed.

The interview has been criticised by Irish politicians across the spectrum and by many in Labour, too, and Gardiner has apologised for the remarks, describing them as “informal” and clarifying that his use of the the word “shibboleth” was referring to its original Biblical meaning as a test of membership, not in the sense of an outdated belief. (Which you'd expect, given that Gardiner once planned to train as a priest.)

But it has exposed two fault lines: one within the opposition, the other within the government. Gardiner is one of the shadow cabinet’s most forceful advocates for a post-Brexit independent trade policy, privately claiming that the United Kingdom could use its trade deals to improve workers’ rights as an agent of left-wing policy internationally. But that involves leaving the customs union and single market: that is to say, it means having to explain away the difficulties of the Irish border.

That problem afflicts the government, too. Also making a fool of himself today is David Davis, who The Times' Henry Zeffman reports told a meeting of business leaders that Leo Varadkar's position on the border is a result of him bowing to pressure from Sinn Fein.

What unites Gardiner and Davis is the essential truth that you cannot reconcile either Labour or the Conservatives’ objectives for Brexit with their promises over the Irish border and their objectives as far as the Good Friday Agreement goes. Something will have to give.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.