Is Labour’s dramatic shift on Brexit at the top of a slippery slope to remaining within the EU?

Stand by for a round of attacks by the Tories on Labour for their dramatic shift to a clearer Brexit policy of remaining within the single market and the customs union for a time “as short as possible, but as long as is necessary”.  But behind the sound and fury, look carefully too for signs of a split or   “nuances” within Conservative ranks.

More than ever, Brexit will either become the clear differentiator between the two main parties or create a smash in British politics with unpredictable results. The British political system is plunged deeper into its greatest turmoil since the People’s Budget and Home Rule crises from  1910, aggravated today by the fact that both party leaders are seen as transitional figures.

Labour’s shift announced today by shadow Brexit secretary Keith Starmer in the Observer has its own risk of underplaying the immigration factor said to feature strongly in some Labour heartlands.

But “as short as possible but as long as necessary” contains  its own ”constructive ambiguity.” How long is that? And then there the slippery slope argument which Remainers will seize on.

Responding to Sir Keir’s announcement, Labour peer and former minister Lord Adonis said on Twitter: “Chances of staying in the EU just rose to nearly 50%. Rejoice, rejoice!”

Starmer argues:

There is now near consensus that a transitional period is an economic and political necessity. So I want to be absolutely clear about the type of transitional deal Labour would seek to negotiate. No “constructive ambiguity”. No mixed messages. A credible solution to one of the most important issues facing Britain’s exit from the EU.

Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU. That means we would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market during this period. It means we would abide by the common rules of both.

There are a number of other significant advantages to this approach. First, it is a grown-up acknowledgement that bespoke transitional arrangements are highly unlikely to be negotiated, agreed and established in the next 18 months. Second, it provides maximum certainty for businesses and allays concerns that there will be delays or disruptions to trade when we leave the EU in March 2019. It would also ensure there will be a one-step transition to a new final relationship.

Third, it provides more time to resolve the complex question of the Northern Ireland border. Labour is clear that this extremely serious issue must not be rushed and that a considered agreement needs to be reached that prevents a hard border and has support from all communities. The government’s policy paper on this was incredibly light on detail and gave precious little reason to believe this will be resolved satisfactorily by March 2019.

Labour will be accused of undermining the government’s positions on negotiations which resume this week. The negotiations appear to be reaching a  difficult juncture already,  as British attempts to break up the  sequence of the  EU’s negotiating agenda  appear to be hitting a Brussels  brick wall. If negotiations stretch beyond 2019 in spite of all the protestations or even break down, the chances of a general election being fought in 2020 or 21 on a Brexit rethink must surely increase.

In a briefing to journalists ahead of the talks, a government official said: “Both sides must be flexible and willing to compromise when it comes to solving areas where we disagree.”

But the U.K. is showing no sign of bending to a key EU demand that it provide its own methodology for calculating Britain’s financial obligations on its departure from the EU, preferring instead to critique the calculations put forward by their negotiating partners.

EU diplomats have said Brexit talks will stall without more clarity from the Brits on the so-called Brexit bill.

Next week’s talks are being billed by the U.K. as “technical in nature,”  laying the groundwork for “more substantive discussions in September,” the briefing note from the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) said.

“This round of negotiations will focus on thrashing out the technical detail on important matters related to us leaving the EU, and will act as a stepping stone to more substantial talks in September,” it added.

It will be the penultimate round of talks before EU leaders decide in October whether “sufficient progress” has been made, and whether talks about a future trade relationship between the U.K. and the bloc can begin.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London