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“Can we be brave in the decisions we make, even if there is a political cost? Can we be honest when the facts change, even if it’s awkward? And can we put the long-term interests of our country before the short-term political needs of the moment, even if it means being controversial?”
So asked Rishi Sunak in his net zero speech (in which he seemed to answer his rhetorical questions no, no and no) – yet we seem no closer to him or any leading politician starting a speech on the UK’s future relationship with Europe in the same vein, as recent Brexit headlines have once more demonstrated.
They have centred on Labour Leader Keir Starmer’s comments about not wanting to diverge from EU rules at a summit of global progressives in Montreal, at which he also talked about putting Britain back on the world stage and showing global leadership.
Those interventions sandwiched meetings in The Hague and Paris where he sought to drum home his message with key European leaders, also opening up the possibility of deals on tackling cross-border crime and migration. The response of the Conservatives and press? Not bravery, honesty and long-term thinking – but cries of ‘betrayal’ buttressing imaginative stories about what Labour would do.
Off the back of such criticism, an under-pressure Starmer seems forced to revert to his ‘there’s no case for going back into the EU and that includes the Single Market and Customs Union’ formula. This despite the polls showing a consistent and growing majority in favour of re-joining the EU, with the public saying that the country is worse off after Brexit and regretting the decision, calling for a new referendum – even in the ‘Red Wall’ – and with thousands of people taking to the streets of the capital for the National Rejoin March on Saturday.
So we’re back to square one – and the pattern repeats as it has done each time Starmer speaks, and will speak, on the issue this side of the general election. Even the Liberal Democrats seem to have jumped on the Brexit-appeasing bandwagon, with its leader Ed Davey choosing the eve of the party’s annual conference to say re-joining is “off the table”.
But a closer look at what Starmer says and doesn’t say is more instructive.
In the same clip in which he reiterated the no re-joining anything line, when pressed on how he would diverge, he couldn’t say – choosing instead to stress there would be no weakening of workers’ rights, environmental protections, and food and product standards. Ditto in his Channel 4 News interview later in the day. It’s the same each time he’s asked to articulate anything remotely positive about Brexit – he just can’t do it, can’t come up with any concrete examples. Because there aren’t any. And he’s not deluded.
Likewise a look at the public comments of some of his Shadow Cabinet ministers shows Labour’s Brexit omertà is well and truly over.
In the past fortnight alone: new Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire attacked the impact of Brexit on the creative sector, especially musicians, calling for a visa waiver for touring artists; new Shadow Environment Secretary Steve Reed said that Brexit has “clobbered farmers with excessive red tape at our borders”, saying Labour would “negotiate a veterinary agreement with the EU to make it easier for British farmers to export to our neighbours”; Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has said we need a new security agreement with the EU to share intelligence and increase working with its law enforcement agency Europol; and Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey said: “Labour will rebuild our relationships with European allies and pursue new security pacts with our European partners.”
Most forthright of all, however, has been Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy, who last week said that Brexit had left the UK “isolated and missing”, adding that “there have always been two visions of Britain. Great Britain, outward-looking, internationalist, connected. And Little England, which is unfortunately what is being pursued by Rishi Sunak”.
Lammy said that closer links with the EU would be Labour’s priority and that it was “bizarre that the UK does not currently under this Government have structured dialogue with the European Union in a constructive way”. He pledged that Labour would approach the 2025 review of the Brexit deal “in a very constructive manner” and hold regular UK-EU meetings, bemoaning Britain being isolated and not having a seat at the table, locked-out of key decisions and discussions, like at the recent G20 summit in Delhi – where the EU, US and India established a new Middle East trade corridor.
And it is that review of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) that looms largest over the horizon just the other side of the election. If the EU concludes that the UK has broken the terms of the deal, it could seek to punish the UK – making it harder for businesses to trade goods with the single market, erecting barriers and cutting access.
Even before that, legal action may force the EU’s hand, with the European Trade Union Confederation warning at last week’s TUC congress that the Government’s new raft of anti-union legislation puts it in breach of International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions. As witnessed over the deadlock in resolving the Northern Ireland situation, the EU does not take kindly to unlawfulness, unpicking and undercutting.
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For all the talk of a reset, an incoming Labour government may find itself having to furiously and rapidly assuage a very angry EU. If the TCA does hold till then, stabilising relations and reassuring Brussels and leading governments will be vital.
A soft continuation of the early Sunak gains – from the Windsor Framework earlier this year that sought to solve the Northern Ireland deadlock and this month’s deal to readmit the UK to Horizon Europe, the EU’s €95 billion funding programme for scientific research, innovation and technological development, to the upcoming cooperation agreement with Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency – seems most likely, followed by the emerging (yet still modest) wish list outlined above. And at no time diverging, with further realignment and re-joining fully or in part various other EU programmes and initiatives, slowly and then rapidly, through the term.
As David Lammy has previously observed, a new Labour government would go through the agreement “page-by-page, seeking ways to remove barriers and improve opportunities for business” – and we can expect more on this in the next few weeks, in the run-up to and then at the Labour Conference.
As for the Conservatives and their upcoming gathering? The Prime Minister ended his ne zero speech by saying: “Consent, not imposition. Honesty, not obfuscation. Pragmatism, not ideology… We are going to make different decisions. We won’t take the easy way out. There will be resistance, and we will meet it.” Again, something we’re unlikely to hear from him at the conclusion of a speech about Brexit anytime soon. It will be more disingenuousness and dishonesty. And betrayal – the real Brexit betrayal that is.