A source close to the Labour leader said Sir Keir and the French president discussed a number of thorny issues when they met this week in Paris – including Britain’s relationship with the EU and how to tackle small boat Channel crossings.
Sir Keir later described the talks as “very political”, while the source told this newspaper that the pair “covered all the difficult issues, not just pleasantries”.
The meeting came against a backdrop of debate over what any renegotiations with the bloc might involve and after Sir Keir – who is walking a tightrope on Brexit ahead of the next election – said he wanted a “closer trading relationship” with the EU.
As speculation grew on Labour’s position, Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, accused the opposition of wanting to “unpick” Brexit if it wins the next general election – an accusation which Sir Keir quickly moved to reject.
The attack follows Sir Keir’s boldest comments yet on the topic, hinting at his vision for the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
Speaking at a conference of centre-left leaders in Canada, he said that he does “not want to diverge” from the bloc’s rules on workers’ rights, food and the environment.
“Most of the conflict with the UK being outside [of the EU] arises in so far as the UK wants to diverge and do different things to the rest of our EU partners,” he said.
“Obviously the more we share values, the more we share a future together, the less the conflict. And, actually, different ways of solving problems become available.
“Actually we don’t want to diverge, we don’t want to lower standards, we don’t want to rip up environmental standards, working standards for people that work, food standards and all the rest of it.”
Sir Keir’s remarks drew flak from the Conservatives with Mr Hunt saying the opposition’s stance “will worry a lot of the people who voted for Brexit”.
Mark Spencer, environment minister, accused the Labour leader of “flip-flopping” in his approach to Brussels, saying: “To keep obsessing – as the Labour Party do – over Brexit and looking back with pink-tinted spectacles and talking about following their rules, I think just takes us back in time.”
As Tory MPs hit out at his remarks, the Labour leader was forced to tell reporters there was no intention of reversing Brexit. He said there was “no case for rejoining the EU, no case for the customs union or single market” and that laws would be “made in this country for the public interest”.
But he added that this “does not mean that a Labour government would lower standards on food or lower the rights that people have at work”.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, also rejected the criticism, saying it “shouldn’t come as a surprise” that Labour would not “dilute workers’ rights, environmental protections or food standards”.
She said Labour accepted the result of the 2016 referendum but added: “Because we want those high standards, we think it is easier for an incoming Labour government to get a better deal with the EU to improve trading relations.
“Because the truth is, the deal that Boris Johnson secured three years ago is not good enough and we have seen a decline in trade between the UK and other European neighbours.”
Sir Keir has promised to push for an improved trading relationship with the EU if Labour forms the next government. Both the Montreal meeting and the Paris talks were part of an international tour designed to portray the Labour leader as a prime minister in waiting.
At the same time, France and Germany were said to be pushing plans to offer Britain “associate membership” of the EU.
Some Brexiteers have argued that leaving the European Union presents an opportunity to change regulations in areas like product standards or the environment – which were previously agreed in Brussels while Britain was a member of the union.
Other voices, such as trade unions and environmentalists, have said EU rules help keep UK standards high and warned against divergence.
And businesses have also warned that divergence from the EU might create extra costs.
Under the Brexit deal negotiated by Mr Johnson, the UK’s rulebook will gradually diverge from the EU’s – though plans to immediately purge the statute books of all EU legislation have been abandoned by Rishi Sunak.
Other approaches to Brexit, such as remaining in the single market, would require Britain to remain synced to EU rules, but would lower trade barriers compared to now.
A Labour Party spokesperson said Labour would not rejoin the single market or customs union, and Britain is “not going back in any form” to the EU.