Labour have just let slip their true Brexit plans

Keir Starmer
Keir Starmer

So far Keir Starmer has managed to avoid the elephant trap of allowing Britian’s future relationship with the EU to become a major election issue.

But the question surely cannot be dodged for much longer. Nobody should be in any doubt that a future Labour government will wish to drag Britain back into the orbit of Brussels.

Right now, leading pro-EU Labour campaigners such as Sadiq Khan and Stella Creasy are stepping up demands for all kinds of new agreements to force the UK into following the lead of the European Commission.

“Labour Movement For Europe”, of which Creasy is national chair, is supported by many Labour MPs and candidates. One of its key campaigns is for the party to implement a Europe-wide “Youth Mobility Visa” that looks very much like a rebadged, qualified version of the EU obligation of free movement, albeit for younger people.

Khan has just pledged to press a new Labour government hard on the issue, declaring: “I can’t introduce a youth mobility scheme without the government supporting this. So one of the points I’ll be making to a new Labour government is how a skill shortage and the labour shortage is affecting our economy.”

Ought we Brexiteers to be reassured by the Labour leader’s headline undertakings not to restore free movement or to take Britain back into the EU customs union or single market? Hardly.

In the run-up to the 2017 election, Starmer – then Labour’s Brexit spokesman – solemnly declared that the party would accept and implement the Brexit referendum verdict as a matter of principle.

But by the run-up to the 2019 election, he had forced the adoption of a policy of holding a second referendum at which the option of scrapping Brexit and remaining in the EU would be on the ballot paper.

So one hardly needs to ask whether Labour under his leadership can be “trusted” not to reverse Brexit. Of course it can’t. Starmer is as rampantly pro-EU as any major party leader has ever been. In office, the only thing that will prevent him from re-entangling the UK in the tentacles of Brussels is if he perceives there will be a heavy electoral price to pay for doing so.

That probably precludes a referendum on restoring full membership in a first Starmer term. Such a move would be akin to opening an all-consuming can of worms and Starmer is surely not foolish enough to do that. Yet, as we have seen, his word is far from being his bond on this issue and nothing else is guaranteed to be off the table.

By far the most likely prospect is that he will restart the sovereignty salami-slicing machine that saw more and more powers transferred from the UK to the European Commission during the years of our membership.

Only Starmer’s version of the machine will see sector-by-sector and subject-by-subject incremental handovers of sovereignty under the guise of “closer cooperation” or “normalised relations” with Brussels.

The UK will probably not end up back in the formal customs union anytime soon. But could the “Facilitated Customs Arrangement” proposed by Theresa May in her abortive Chequers deal be back on the table? Absolutely. And that plan was so close to customs union membership as to amount to a distinction without a difference.

Across the board, this is the approach we can expect Labour to take on everything from trade to immigration, foreign policy to environmental standards – especially if it has a landslide majority.

The days of Labour having even a handful of prominent pro-Brexit MPs are long gone; Kate Hoey now sits as a crossbencher in the Lords, while Frank Field is sadly with us no more.

Far from accepting the Brexit referendum verdict and embracing a new national democratic paradigm, Labour politicians have doubled down on their ideological preference for continent-wide decision making.

Can the fragile flower of Brexit – for so long prevented by its parliamentary enemies from coming into bloom – withstand the worst that a House of Commons dominated by would-be rejoiners can throw at it? According to the opinion polls, we may be about to find out.

Anyone expecting Sir Keir Starmer, who is in reality among the most ardent pro-EU fanatics of all, to hold the Brexit line “as a matter of principle” can’t have been paying much attention to politics in recent years.

It is high time the election debate moved on to the custodianship of the most important and profound democratic decision the British people have taken so far this century.