Labour vows to rip up and rethink Brexit white paper

Anushka Asthanaand Jessica Elgot
Jeremy Corbyn campaigning in Aviemore Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

Labour has said it would scrap the Brexit white paper and replace it with new negotiating priorities with the emphasis on keeping the benefits of the single market and customs union.

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, will set out the plans alongside a pledge to unilaterally guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals as part of the party’s election manifesto, hastily being put together following the snap election announcement last week.

In a speech in Westminster on Tuesday, the Labour frontbencher will insist that his party has accepted the referendum result but wants to build a close relationship “not as members, but as partners”.

He will promise that Labour would replace the government’s great repeal bill with legislation focused on EU rights and protections. “A Labour government will set out a new Brexit strategy … A Labour approach to Brexit means legislating to guarantee that parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal,” he will say.

Starmer said the difference between the parties would be their “tone and approach” and hinted Labour would be prepared to accept some formal membership of European Union agencies or even the European court of justice.

“The approach the prime minister has made is to say: ‘Out out out, we don’t want anything to do with the single market, or the customs union or the European court or European agencies,’” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Her approach takes all the options off the table before we start, it’s a rigid and reckless approach and gives her very little to play with.” Starmer said May should also have kept membership of the customs union on the table for her negotiations.

“I accept it’s not going to be easy and we’re not going to get everything we want,” Starmer said, but insisted a Labour government would aim high. “We want businesses to trade as successfully as they have in the past, that’s not a wish list, that’s an imperative.”

The attempt to win over remain supporters who may have been put off Labour by its support for Theresa May in triggering article 50 comes as the party gears up to produce its manifesto.

A launch date of 15 May has been pencilled in by the party’s campaign team and sources have told the Guardian that the document, which will be drafted by Jeremy Corbyn’s key adviser, Andrew Fisher, will follow consultations with MPs, councillors and unions. An email has been sent out to garner the views of members.

Fisher, who was previously a PCS union official, will pull together the ideas that will be agreed by the party’s executive and shadow cabinet at a critical “Clause V” meeting on 11 May.

The Conservatives were critical of Starmer’s proposals, with Dominic Raab MP, member of the Exiting the European Union select committee, said: “Only Theresa May and the Conservatives can provide the strong and stable leadership the United Kingdom needs to see us through Brexit and beyond.

“But there is a real risk of Jeremy Corbyn – with the support of the SNP and Lib Dems – becoming prime minister and being in charge of the Brexit negotiations. He is a weak leader of a divided party who couldn’t get the right deal for the United Kingdom.

“We have a clear plan for the Brexit negotiations, and every vote for Theresa May will strengthen her hand in those negotiations to get a good deal for the UK.”

Meanwhile, shadow cabinet members are being asked to take part in three national events a week during the campaign. Any absences must be agreed with Corbyn’s political secretary, Katy Clark, and the Guardian understands that shadow cabinet minister, Jon Trickett, will be part of an attack team in central office.

Labour’s campaign has already been hit by controversy over the issue of Trident after Corbyn appeared to suggest Labour would not renew the nuclear deterrent and used a Sunday interview to say he would order an immediate strategic defence review looking at “all aspects” of defence policy if he was prime minister.

However, Labour’s campaign chairman, Andrew Gwynne, said renewal of Trident would be in the party’s manifesto. “Yes, it’s Labour party policy. We are committed to renewing the Trident system,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Nia Griffith, the shadow defence secretary, played down the significance of Corbyn’s personal views, saying Labour as a party was prepared to use nuclear weapons. In an interview on BBC2’s Daily Politics, she said: “We are a team, we are a party, we are working as a party. And this is not a presidential election. This is an election about who is in government and this is an election between political parties.”

Asked how Trident could be a deterrent if Corbyn has said he would not use nuclear weapons, she said: “I think it is very important that we are absolutely clear that we are prepared to use it and I’m certainly prepared to use it.”

A shadow cabinet member told the Guardian that while the Labour leader would have to toe the party’s agreed line on defence, he would have control over other policy areas. “Be in no doubt, he is going to get his own way on policies,” they said.

The involvement of Fisher in drafting the manifesto drew criticism from the Conservative party. It claimed he had previously called for the police to be disarmed, MI5 disbanded and defence spending to be slashed. The party, which is trying to portray Corbyn as weak on national security, also claimed Fisher wanted Trident to be scrapped and was opposed to drone strikes being used to kill terrorists.

Tory MP James Cleverly said: “All you need to know about the man writing Labour’s manifesto is that he wants to make our country less safe. This is a prime example of the sort of chaos that you’d get if Jeremy Corbyn was in Downing Street.”

The Tories are also likely to use the fact that the Communist party will be backing Labour in trying to steer voters away from Corbyn.

Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, will criticis Corbyn at an event in Portsmouth on Tuesday.

“Our nuclear deterrent keeps us at the top table in this post-Brexit world. All this means that Jeremy Corbyn is unfit to be prime minister; he is a rare combination of being both weak and dangerous,” Farron plans to say. “If you say that you would never press the button, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to have suggested, that makes a mockery of having a deterrent or indeed sound defences.”

However, Farron says his party will end the current continuous-at-sea deterrent and use new measures such as gaps in patrols and irregular patrolling patterns. “Our long term goal will always be a nuclear-free world, and we must use the UK’s position to lead international efforts towards multilateral disarmament,” he will say.

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