Sir Keir Starmer has insisted that Britain will not diverge from EU rules if Labour wins power at the next general election.
The opposition leader said “most of the conflict” with Brussels had arisen when the Tories wanted to “do different things” to Brussels on regulation.
He told a Left-wing audience in Canada that as prime minister he would improve relations with Europe by sticking to the bloc’s standards.
Senior Conservatives said the remarks showed “the mask has slipped” and Sir Keir would seek to reverse Brexit by rejoining the project.
A Labour spokesman insisted it would not take Britain back into the EU “in any form”.
Sir Keir made the intervention while speaking at an event hosted by Canada 2020, a centre-Left think tank, in Montreal on Saturday evening.
“Most of the conflict with the UK being outside… arises insofar 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, food standards and all the rest of it.
“So suddenly you’re within a space where, notwithstanding the obvious fact we are outside of the EU and not in the EEA, there’s a lot more common ground than you might think.”
Sir Keir also said that “one of the most saddening things” was that Brexit has been seen by other countries as the “turning of our backs on the world”.
He said there was a sense among global partners that “we’re drifting off the international stage and you can feel it almost everywhere you go”.
“One of the first tasks for an incoming Labour government is going to have to be to restore the UK on the world stage and to make sure that we are part of the discussion about the challenges and show that leadership,” he added.
James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, said the comments showed Sir Keir “wants to rejoin the EU in all but name” adding: “What does Labour stand for?”
Keir voted remain.
Then he backed a second referendum.
Then he didn’t.
Now he wants to rejoin the EU in all but name.
What does Labour stand for? https://t.co/A9L8JlWV0K
— James Cleverly🇬🇧 (@JamesCleverly) September 21, 2023
Kit Malthouse, a former Cabinet minister, responded to the remarks by saying: “The mask slips.”
Sir Simon Clarke, a former Cabinet minister, warned that “being a rule-taker, blindly following the EU, would be a disastrous mistake”.
”The whole point of Brexit is our ability to do things differently. From our vaccine roll-out to freeports to solvency rules to our membership of the CPTPP, we are already demonstrating why this matters,” he said.
Britain is more than a rule-taker. This was the fundamental point of the whole 2017-19 Parliament, and the basis on which the last election was fought. Keir Starmer clearly still believes otherwise. https://t.co/7ima40w6wP
— Simon Clarke MP (@SimonClarkeMP) September 21, 2023
Rachel Maclean, the housing minister, said: “Sir Keir says one thing to his lefty friends on the international stage and another at home.
“My constituents voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Labour are the rejoin EU party. At least they’ve been clear about something for a change.”
The Labour leader has repeatedly insisted that under his watch the UK would not weaken a swathe of current standards that are based on EU rules.
In a speech last July outlining his five-point plan to “make Brexit work” he said that staying close to Brussels was key to “tearing down unnecessary trade barriers”.
“Labour has no intention from diverging standards below current levels, so agreeing these common standards will not only help our exporters but create a safety net to ensure our food standards are world leading,” he said.
A spokesman for the party insisted that it would not take Britain back into the bloc “in any form” and did not support copying and pasting EU rules.
He said: “We’re not joining the single market or the customs union. We will not be in a situation where we are a rule-taker. Any decisions on what standards we follow will be made in the UK Parliament.
“The Tories have not used Brexit to diverge on food, environmental or labour standards and if they have a plan to do so then they should come clean with people.”