For months, Labour has been moving ever closer to the Tory position on Brexit while pretending that it isn’t. First, it backed Brexit. Then in June, John McDonnell told Robert Peston that he couldn’t see continued membership of the single market being ‘on the table’ in Brexit negotiations. He added that people would interpret membership of the single market as ‘not respecting that referendum.’ In July, Jeremy Corbyn told Andrew Marr that single market membership is ‘dependent on membership of the EU.’ Barry Gardiner has even suggested that the UK would become a ‘vassal state’ if it were to remain in the single market after Brexit.
Today, Sir Keir Starmer writes in the Observer that, unlike Liam Fox and Philip Hammond, he’d like Britain to ‘remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market’ during a transition period. The government’s negotiating position is that it wants neither – but it could well concede on both, given how little is at stake. It depends on various industries: financial services might have a different timetable to farming. But not many in the Cabinet think that this is such a big deal either way. As Sir Keir admits, the transition deal would be ‘imperfect and prove unsustainable beyond a limited period.’ He says he is open to the Tories’ plan to negotiate a ‘bespoke trade deal’ and agrees that the transition period should not be longer than is necessary.
‘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.
That is a choice Liam Fox and Philip Hammond explicitly ruled out a fortnight ago, stating that Britain would be outside the customs union and the single market in any transitional phase. Labour rejects that as an unnecessary and highly risky path to take.’
This is not, as Ukip is saying, a “screaming u-turn” from Labour. It’s all rather pragmatic, on both sides. Contrary to what Sir Keir says in the Observer, no one in the Cabinet has objected to there being a transition period. Lord Adonis tweeted earlier that the chances of remaining in the EU jumped 50pc after Sir Keir’s article – if he means that those odds have increased from 2pc to 3pc then he might be right. Parliament can’t stop Brexit: as the EU has said, Article 50 is irrevocable. If the EU is able to negotiate a post-Brexit deal (a big if, given its record) then Parliament can decide whether to endorse or reject that deal. But the alternative is no deal and Brexit under WTO rules. There is no parliamentary mechanism to force the government to abandon Brexit, and no mechanism to force the EU to forget Article 50 was served.
Sir Keir is talking about how, not whether, Brexit happens. The nature of the transition deal is not something many Brexiteers get too worked up about. It’s a sensible step towards an aim that is not in doubt: leaving the European Union.