Although Labour MPs have much to disagree with their leader on of late, one thing many have been buoyed by is the fact that Jeremy Corbyn appears to be softening the party’s Brexit position. The Labour leader’s big Brexit speech in February voicing support for some form of permanent customs union was widely seen as a step forward in uniting the two sides – and the result of lobbying from Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary.
Since then an uneasy truce has formed within the party over Brexit. Owen Smith was the first to break it – using an article to diverge from Labour policy and call for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. He was subsequently sacked from the front bench for breach of shadow cabinet collective responsibility. Now Barry Gardiner is the latest to stray from the party line – only he has gone the other way. In a recording obtained by Red Roar – the Labour blog – the shadow international trade secretary describes the Good Friday Agreement as ‘a shibboleth’ in Brexit negotiations and dismisses Starmer’s six Brexit tests as ‘meaningless’, at a private meeting of MEPs in Brussels last month. He told MEPs they had to vote Theresa May’s final Brexit deal through or face Jacob Rees-Mogg as PM:
‘I think we must also recognise that there are real economic reasons why people have played up the issue of the Irish border and the need to have the shibboleth of the Good Friday agreement. And that is because it is hugely in the Republic of Ireland’s economic interest to make sure that there is no tariff and no external border there.’
Although the DUP’s Sammy Wilson has today voiced agreement with Gardiner’s shibboleth comment, this is not the way in which the Labour party had hoped to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Given that Gardiner’s comments appear to undermine the party position, Labour activists are demanding his sacking just as Smith received for stepping out of line. To make matters worse, before the recording emerged Gardiner dismissed the allegations as ‘nonsense on stilts’. Only, so far no sacking has come. Instead, Gardiner has attempted some damage limitation and apologised for suggesting that the Good Friday agreement is ‘outdated or unimportant’:
‘I am deeply sorry that my informal remarks in a meeting last month have led to misunderstanding on that point – in particular, that my use of the word “shibboleth” in its sense of “pass word” or “test of membership” gave the impression that I thought the Good Friday Agreement was in any way outdated or unimportant. I absolutely do not.’
Corbyn’s next step – action or inaction – will be telling. In theory, there is reason to sack Gardiner just as Corbyn axed Smith. But Gardiner has three things working in his favour (a) he is a Corbyn ally – unlike Smith who actually tried to oust Corbyn in a leadership election (b) his sin is to push for a more hardline Brexit position – rather than try and stop it from happening (c) whether or not you believe Gardiner, he has walked back from him comments. But if he does stay in post, rumours of a softening of Labour’s Brexit position will be greatly exaggerated.