Keir Starmer’s Labour is becoming increasingly bold when it comes to Brexit. With the referendum’s seventh anniversary on Friday, the shadow foreign secretary David Lammy today (20 June) reiterated the party’s promise to improve relations with the EU.
Since 2016, much has changed. Labour is well ahead in the polls – around 20 points. Economic growth is minimal, the cost-of-living crisis continues to bite and inflation remains high. Just last week, Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, put the blame for inflation squarely on Brexit. “There’s no joy in saying, well, ‘we told you so’ because people are having to live with that reality,” said Carney, who was put under pressure to resign from the governorship when he warned of the economic pain that the then prime minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal would cause.
Lammy spoke at the Trade Unlocked Conference in Birmingham’s NEC venue. Before his intervention, little had changed in the political consensus around Britain’s isolation from the bloc – other than Labour figures coding their criticism of the Conservative government’s deal by saying Starmer would “make Brexit work”.
Lammy set out his plans to improve relations with the EU, and took aim at the Conservatives who criticised him. “Last week the Conservative Party press office attacked me for saying that improving our relationship with the EU will be a priority of the next Labour government. I have no qualms about repeating this,” he stated, unashamedly. “Reconnecting Britain must start by reconnecting with our European neighbours. Because the EU are our biggest trading partners.” Lammy proceeded to outwardly antagonise his colleagues on the right of the Commons (“the Tories are at best ill-informed and at worst dishonest” about trade deals outside of Europe), and challenging hard-nosed Brexiteers (“if you do not think Britain’s relationship with Europe is of fundamental importance to our future, you are living in a fantasy”).
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The shadow foreign secretary has been trailing the closer relationship his party would develop with the EU for months. In January, he criticised the Foreign Office’s approach to EU relations, calling for bilateral meetings and unblocking access to the European research programme Horizon. But Lammy held firm on Labour’s position not to rejoin the European single market or customs union, much to the disappointment of Remainers in the party.
But now he has set out a stronger offer that distinguishes Labour from the Conservatives. Focusing on the “pragmatic”, he set out a number of measures that he said would “turn the page” on the “era of acrimony that this government has overseen”. He spoke positively about improving trade deals, negotiating agreements around food and agricultural trade, strengthening recognition of qualifications, and creating new flexible labour mobility arrangements, among other things. He also hinted at a sense of malleability in Labour’s approach, telling the conference his party would be “listening to business” and “assess and give a considered view on the recommendations this conference has put forward”. The door appears to be open for the deal with the EU to change, though membership is clearly not an option.
Labour is showing that it will press for a softer approach. Lammy, a vocal campaigner to keep Britain in the EU, was arguably a risky selection for shadow foreign secretary by Starmer. But his party may now feel that this can be played to its advantage. Public opinion appears to be slowly turning against Brexit. Since late July 2022, more than half of people surveyed for YouGov say they regret it. The European Research Group, a once influential and dominant group of Brexiteer MPs, is now splintered. Even the government is making concessions on its Brexit promises, such as last month when the Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s diluted the EU Retained Law Bill, which would remove old EU law.
The Conservatives are hampered by their Brexiteer influence. Labour, however, can afford to take a more nuanced approach – and it is bolstered by rising public support. From today, it is becoming clear that Lammy intends to press forward with diplomacy and pragmatism.