Why Labour are still sceptical about a Brexit compromise

Keir Starmer has made clear to Labour MPs tonight that any deal with the government must have their support. Even if May shifts her red lines, she will struggle to meet that threshold. 

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Brexit talks between Labour and the government have resumed this evening, but should we expect any movement? Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, struck a decidedly cool note at tonight’s meeting of the parliamentary Labour party. 

Offering what those in the room described as a “rightly sceptical” assessment of negotiations with ministers, Starmer stressed that there would be no movement from Labour unless the government offered meaningful concessions on its red lines. 

Having walked out of discussions on Friday over ministers’ unwillingness to make changes to the political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and EU, Starmer told MPs that there was little sign of any change in government tactics. 

“They’re saying that if we stand on our heads, look through a mirror, and then squint, the deal that we’ve rejected three times will look like a customs union,” said one frontbencher. “But we’re not in the driving seat. They’re the ones who have to make us an offer.”

Shadow cabinet sources suggest that ministers have today begun to demonstrate some willing to do so. There is some cautious anticipation that the “substantive” policy concessions being discussed in private could be written into a revised political declaration if this evening’s talks conclude satisfactorily. But the nub of Starmer's speech this evening was that there was little cause for optimism.

In any case, a compromise on policy alone will not be enough. Starmer told the PLP that any deal must meet two other criteria. The first is that it must be protected in law via a so-called Boris lock that would as prevent the Tory leader that follows May once the withdrawal agreement passes from tearing up the political declaration unless a majority of MPs agreed (Johnson and Dominic Raab are the two bogeymen most frequently cited by Labour MPs). 

The second, which has even greater potential to derail the process, is that the settlement must be one the vast majority of Labour MPs can support. “The whole point of this exercise,” a source close to Starmer said, “is that it should deliver an outcome that almost all of the PLP can vote for.” 

Given that a sizeable chunk of the PLP has set its absolute minimum price as a confirmatory referendum a prospect that the government remains resistant to, despite its having been raised in every meeting by Labour negotiators it is clear that even if May departs from type and offers the opposition their preferred Brexit, she may well still fall short.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.