Starmer clashes with shadow cabinet over second referendum

Heather Stewart Political editor
Photograph: HO/PRU/AFP via Getty Images

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, has clashed with shadow cabinet colleagues over Labour’s stance on a second referendum, the Guardian understands.

At the weekly shadow cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Starmer suggested Labour policy meant the party must support any amendment to the government’s withdrawal agreement bill calling for a referendum on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal – and then campaign for remain.

But in a debate that became testy at times, according to two people present, Starmer faced a backlash from colleagues including Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett.

One witness said Lavery accused Starmer of “ramming this policy down my throat for 18 months”.

There was a separate discussion about when Labour should be willing to back a general election, if Johnson’s deal is defeated – with Corbyn loyalists Laura Pidcock and Dan Carden calling for the party to support an early poll.

Downing Street has suggested that if MPs reject Johnson’s bill – or amend it to force him to negotiate a customs union – he could pull it, and ask MPs to support a general election instead.

Labour twice voted against Johnson’s efforts to secure a mid-October general election, which requires a two-thirds majority under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.

Corbyn has repeatedly said that once a Brexit extension is secured, he will support a snap poll – but some Labour MPs would like to see a referendum held first.

The prime minister sent a letter on Saturday to the European council president, Donald Tusk, requesting an extension, after MPs withheld their approval from his deal until the withdrawal agreement bill has been passed.

In the shadow cabinet discussions about whether Labour would campaign for remain against Johnson’s deal, Lavery and Trickett pointed to the motion passed at last month’s Labour conference in Brighton, which said: “The party shall only decide how to campaign in such a referendum through a one-day special conference, following the election of a Labour government.”

Party members backed the motion after Corbyn made clear he wanted the decision about its referendum stance to be taken after a Labour government came to power.

The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, also expressed concerns about supporting a compromise similar to the Kyle-Wilson amendment.

The Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson previously suggested they could support Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement if it was subjected to a confirmatory referendum. But Corbyn said he would “caution” MPs against being willing to accept that quid pro quo.

 

The new Brexit deal is essentially the old Brexit deal with a new chapter on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and a few key tweaks to the political declaration. Here is a link to the full text.

 

The backstop is replaced

 

The backstop has essentially been replaced by a full stop whereby Northern Ireland remains aligned to the EU from the end of the transition period for at least four years. A change can only happen if it is voted on by the Stormont assembly.

 

Consent

 

Stormont will have a key role in future Brexit arrangements. And if there is cross-community support to remain aligned to the EU rather than the UK the consent will hold for eight years.

The arrangements in this deal will automatically kick in for a mandated four years if there is a breakdown in trade talks, so it remains a “backstop” but with a permanent tinge.

That four-year period will start at the end of December 2020.

Two months before the end of the four-year period, that is October 2024, Stormont will be asked to vote on whether to remain aligned to the EU in ways outlined by this deal or not.

 

Checks on border, ports and airports

 

Under the deal, the UK and the EU are “underlining their firm commitment to no customs and regulatory checks or controls and related physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

 

Future trade deals

 

The EU and the UK will aim for a zero-tariff deal with unlimited quotas. The entire UK, including Northern Ireland, will be free to sign trade deals. The line in the political declaration that “the United Kingdom will consider aligning with union rules in relevant areas” in any future trade talks has been ditched.

 

Customs

 

Northern Ireland will remain legally in the UK customs territory but practically in the EU customs unions. There will therefore be no customs checks on the border but tariffs will be payable on certain commercial goods.

No customs duties will be payable on “personal property” being transited from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That protects online shopping and all items bought for personal rather than commercial use.

Customs duties will be payable on goods imported from the UK for commercial use unless it can be demonstrated that the goods remain in Northern Ireland or are for personal use, as above.

A system of rebates will allow importers to be reimbursed.

 

West/east trade

 

The commitment to frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is restated.

 

VAT

 

EU law on VAT will apply in Northern Ireland.

 

Single electricity market

 

The island of Ireland is considering a single market for electricity so homes in Northern Ireland can get their energy from a supplier in Northern Ireland or the republic. There were fears this could be disrupted by Brexit. Under the Johnson deal, the provisions of union law remain so nothing will change.

 

Level playing field

 

This guarantees that the UK will remain in line with EU conventions on climate, environment and workers rights in a future trade agreement.

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

 

Abbott said last month: “I don’t think we should be supporting a bad deal, just because it’s got a referendum attached. That’s why I was against Kyle-Wilson.

“Either it’s a good deal, which says something about the customs union, and alignment with the single market – or it’s not. The referendum is not an end in itself. Kyle-Wilson has resurfaced, and it was a bad idea the first time around, and I don’t support it.”

Starmer, the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have said publicly they would like to campaign for remain.

But Trickett said earlier this month that he did not support the idea of a referendum that would pitch Johnson’s deal against remain.

“A referendum before the election would imply a Tory Brexit against remain. I believe that the majority in the country voted for leave – and I feel that a Labour Brexit can only be delivered by a Labour government.

Corbyn opened the meeting on Tuesday by reminding shadow cabinet members not to stray from Labour’s agreed policies in media appearances, according to those present.

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