How Keir Starmer hopes to ‘make Brexit work’

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA</span>
Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Keir Starmer is using a speech on Monday to set out Labour’s five-point plan to “make Brexit work” – a slogan he first used in his party conference speech last year.

Labour’s approach is to seek to de-dramatise the issue, by focusing on practicalities, instead of reopening old political wounds:

1) Settle the Northern Ireland protocol

Boris Johnson’s government is on the warpath with the EU over the protocol, with controversial legislation making its way through the House of Commons that would disapply aspects of the deal the government signed in 2019.

Labour says there is a “landing zone” in negotiations between the two sides, however, which would include seeking a veterinary agreement to cover agricultural goods, allowing many of the cumbersome checks to be lifted.

For other goods, Labour says it would work with businesses in Northern Ireland to put in place a trusted trader scheme to reduce the proportion of exports that need to be subject to checks.

Related: Keir Starmer’s Brexit plan is a mouse of a policy – what is he so afraid of? | Simon Jenkins

2) Cut down paperwork

Labour would seek to extend the new veterinary agreement UK-wide, so that as well as products from Great Britain being sold into Northern Ireland, exports to the EU could also potentially face fewer checks.

It would also seek to negotiate “mutual recognition of conformity assessments,” across some sectors – so that companies would only have to face one set of tests to show they meet required standards in the UK and the EU.

Labour hopes this is negotiable because, Starmer says, his government has no intention of cutting standards – though it is unclear whether the EU would be convinced. Theresa May sought a similar outcome, but she was willing to sign up to EU regulations for key goods as a quid quo pro.

Labour would also seek new flexibility for people wanting to work in the EU in the short-term, such as musicians on tours.

3) Support services and scientists

Point three includes a bundle of technical changes aimed at making life easier for employees and companies to work in, and export to, the EU.

Starmer says Labour wants to negotiate mutual recognition of professional qualifications with the EU, for example, to allow UK professionals such as lawyers to practise more easily in the EU and vice versa.

And Labour would seek access to cross-border scientific endeavours such as Horizon, which UK scientists are currently unable to access due to the row over the protocol – the EU ambassador to the UK recently called this “collateral damage”.

4) Seek a security pact

Former prime minister Theresa May used a speech in Munich in 2018 to set out her hopes of negotiating a wide-ranging security pact with the EU, despite her determination to leave its common foreign and security policy. When Boris Johnson took over the negotiations he dropped the idea, however, to focus primarily on trade and the knotty issue of the Northern Irish border. Starmer argues that the current standoff over the protocol is hampering the UK’s ability to collaborate with the EU on other issues, including security – and says Labour would try to strike a new agreement. This would include joint working on issues such as intelligence and cybersecurity.

5) Invest in the UK

Point five, perhaps the least developed, is broadly about what the UK can now do to maximise the benefits of being outside the EU. Starmer says Labour would “use green investment and a commitment to buy, make and sell in Britain to ensure we are best placed to compete on a global stage”.

He also suggests the party would take a new approach to trade, which would “put people, communities, rights, and standards at its very heart”, though it is unclear what that would mean in practice.

6) Not seeking to rejoin the single market or restore free movement

Starmer’s plan only has five points, but almost the most striking element of it is what he says he will not do – argue for the UK to rejoin the single market, or restore free movement.

As he puts it: “With Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union. We will not return to freedom of movement to create short-term fixes.”

Starmer spent much of the last parliament helping to drag Labour towards a policy of a second referendum, and said during his leadership campaign that he would argue for free movement.

But he now believes there is little to be won electorally from revisiting the issue, and whatever the hopes of many party members, hopes to, as he puts it, “move on”.

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