After months of confusion, contradictory statements and embarrassing media interviews, Labour has finally brought some clarity to its opaque policy on Brexit.
Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, has announced that the Opposition wants the UK to remain in the single market and customs union during a transitional phase after it leaves the EU in March 2019. During that period, Labour would accept the rules of both arrangements, including free movement – a departure from the party’s manifesto at the June election, which said “freedom of movement will end when we leave the EU”.
Significantly, Starmer does not rule out permanent membership of the single market and customs union after the transitional phase, if the EU agreed reforms on issues such as migration.
Labour’s move is overdue but welcome. Remaining in the EU’s main institutions for the transition is common sense. Such an “off the shelf” arrangement would provide the certainty and stability that business desperately needs, probably reducing the loss of investment and jobs. Despite that, Theresa May seeks a more complicated “bespoke” transitional deal, and insists the UK must leave the single market and customs union in 2019. The time and energy wasted on securing such an agreement would be much better spent on forging a long-term UK-EU partnership.
Although the Chancellor Philip Hammond would probably support an “off the shelf” transitional deal, Ms May seems worried that hardline Brexiteers would then accuse her of not implementing last year’s referendum decision. The Prime Minister should start to do what is right for her country rather than her party.
If she does not, it will fall to Parliament to ensure a sensible transition in line with Labour’s new approach. House of Commons arithmetic means that several of the 20 pro-European Conservatives would need to vote with opposition parties to secure single market and customs union membership for the transition. When MPs return to Westminster next month, these Tories will come under enormous pressure not to hand Jeremy Corbyn a landmark victory. But they should act in the national interest, even if Ms May does not.
Mr Corbyn, a long-standing Eurosceptic, should be applauded for his pragmatism. Although many working-class people in the North and Midlands voted Leave last year, voters did not endorse Ms May's hard Brexit vision in June. Labour is now unmistakably the party of soft Brexit.
Mr Corbyn has also acknowledged the support for close EU links among his MPs, party members and the trade unions – not to mention the adoring crowds at Glastonbury. Probably he senses that Labour’s new stance will enable it to make trouble for Ms May in Parliament. What he wants above all is another election; after his performance in June, who can blame him?
The Opposition now offers more clarity on the biggest issue facing the country than the Government. In a series of position papers in the past two weeks, ministers have set out to replicate much of what the UK currently enjoys after Brexit – on issues including customs, the Northern Ireland border, civil judicial cooperation and data protection. Which, of course, begs the question: why not stay in the single market and customs union, at least during the transitional phase?
Although Boris Johnson has been virtually silent on Brexit over the summer, the Government’s papers show that it has adopted his totally unrealistic “have-cake-and-eat-it” approach. This has naturally gone down badly with the 27 EU members. They have not fallen for a naked attempt to switch the focus on to a trade deal before “first round” matters are settled on citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland and an inevitable divorce payment on which the UK refuses to engage.
When negotiations resume in Brussels on Monday, David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, will urge his counterpart Michel Barnier to show more flexibility. Yet it is time for the Government to do just that. It would also do well to display the same clarity and pragmatism as Labour.