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22 November 2022

Return of Brexit talks gives Labour an opening

The party can’t alienate Leave voters, but it can attack the government for its deal harming the economy.

By Freddie Hayward

The Prime Minister has denied reports that the government is exploring a “Swiss-style” arrangement with the EU.

That’s no surprise. The Swiss arrangement comprises 120 bilateral agreements. Switzerland gives money to the EU. The EU doesn’t like the Swiss arrangement and probably wouldn’t want to replicate it.

Rishi Sunak also doesn’t have the political capital to secure a deal before the next general election. The divisions in his party are bad enough without throwing Brexit back into the mix. Indeed, the government would need to resolve negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol before agreeing any deal.

The atmosphere around those negotiations has improved since Sunak became Prime Minister. The minister responsible for the negotiations, James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, has told a select committee that he wants to reach an agreement with the EU. Likewise the EU’s negotiator, Maroš Šefčovič, has welcomed the resumption of talks for the first time since February. But as one EU source put it to me, “the concern is that we have been here before”.

Any immediate change in the UK’s relationship with the EU is therefore unlikely. However, what is important is that closer ties with the EU are being discussed. Part of the reason for that is that the economic damage of Brexit is becoming more visible at a time when people are getting poorer. For instance, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic report released with the Autumn Statement on 17 November said that trade intensity had fallen by 15 per cent. The opportunities to criticise Brexit have grown.

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This provides an opening for Labour. They don’t want to condemn Brexit because that would alienate Brexit voters. But it would help to blame the government for the financial pain people are experiencing. Hence Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, told Bloomberg last week: “The Brexit deal the government secured has cost our economy dearly.”

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Labour is also going for the government over immigration. Keir Starmer will tell the Confederation of British Industry today that under a Labour government the days of “low pay and cheap labour” would end. He wants to increase training for domestic workers instead. It’s not yet clear whether Labour’s plans would reduce immigration. For now, however, Labour is attacking the government both for the economic pain of Brexit and its failure to manage immigration. That’s a much more aggressive strategy than merely criticising the government over the technicalities of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and links directly to the issues that motivated people to vote for Brexit in the first place. It could well prove fruitful.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Labour must make sure no one forgets the Tories’ Brexit disaster]