Labour’s soft response to Theresa May’s hard Brexit speech
London Letter: Party spokesman sees focus on single market as sign of moderation
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer: While Liberal Democrat and SNP representatives objected to Theresa May’s plan, he welcomed the fact that the prime minister wasn’t advocating an even harder Brexit. Photograph: PA Wire
Among the most surprising aspects of Theresa May’s speech this week outlining her plans for leaving the EU was the mildness of the response from Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer. While Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron accused May of “a theft of democracy” and Nicola Sturgeon threatened a second Scottish independence referendum, Starmer welcomed the fact that the prime minister wasn’t advocating an even harder Brexit.
A former director of public prosecutions, Starmer has been hailed as a future leader of his party ever since he became an MP in 2015, and he was encouraged to stand in both leadership elections since then. He made a brilliant start in his current role last October, sending Brexit secretary David Davis 170 questions about the government’s plan for taking Britain out of the EU.
Starmer claims, with some justification, that May would never have made this week’s speech if he and his Labour colleagues had not forced her hand.
“The prime minister only set out her objectives because the Labour Party pushed her and pushed her to produce those objectives. She resisted that up until December of last year and then, on an opposition day motion, agreed that she would publish the objectives. And therefore, it’s important that those objectives were made public so we can all see them, hear them and consider them,” he says.
Polite and unusually soft-spoken for a former barrister, Starmer exhibits exasperation when challenged about his response to the speech. To most observers, including hardline Brexiteers, May’s declaration of intent to leave the single market and the customs union is a clear blueprint for a hard Brexit.
For Starmer, however, the prime minister’s aspiration for Britain to enjoy maximum access to the single market after Brexit is a sign of moderation.
“Having spoken to businesses across the UK who trade with the EU, either in goods or services, and to trade unions and working people, it’s absolutely clear that they are very concerned to preserve tariff-free access to the single market and access to the single market which is not bound up with more and more bureaucracy and red tape. And so I was pleased that among the prime minister’s objectives were the negotiation of the fullest possible access to the single market on a tariff-free basis, and what she called frictionless trade, meaning trade without impediments. That is important to the UK and it’s now important that the prime minister was held to those objectives,” he says.
Some Labour MPs are unhappy with Starmer’s response to May’s speech and with his opposition to any attempt to block or delay the triggering of article 50. Many Labour voters, the overwhelming majority of whom voted Remain, are also frustrated by their party’s refusal to fight for the closest possible relationship with the EU after Brexit.
Starmer’s approach is popular, however, among the two-thirds of Labour MPs who represent areas that voted Leave. They fear that their constituents would interpret anything short of leaving the single market and the customs union as a betrayal of the referendum vote. Threatened by both Ukip and the Conservatives, they want to put as little clear water as possible on Brexit between themselves and the parties of the right.
Labour’s emollient approach has created an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats, who have cast themselves as the champions of the 48 per cent who opposed Brexit. Starmer sees an important role for Labour, however, in ensuring that May does not follow through on her threat to turn Britain into a bargain basement economy if she is unhappy with the deal on offer from the EU.
“We’re going to have to wait and see what happens in the negotiations. I think everybody hopes and expects that the government will negotiate a package which is acceptable to parliament. That’s by far the best outcome,” he says.
“The fact that there is a vote does put grit into the system and I would hope that the government would use the two-year period to report back to parliament on a regular basis on progress, so that when it gets to the final deal, it has a fair understanding of whether that is acceptable to our parliament. But it is important that there is that vote at the end of the exercise so that, if for example the government at that stage is proposing to pull out of the EU and to create a tax haven economy, we absolutely need a national debate about it.”