The domestic political landscape is shaping up with Labour offering a closer and more harmonious relationship with the EU, while the Tories maintain a more distant approach. Time is running out to address the economic and geopolitical consequences of Brexit.
T his has been quite an important week for post-Brexit politics, in that there has been the clearest indication yet of the approach of the anticipated future Labour government, and certainly the most extensive media coverage of it, perhaps because that prospect is becoming closer. At the same time, there’s been the clearest indication yet of how Labour’s policy will differ, to an extent, from the present Tory government and differ, considerably, from the probable position of a post-election-loss Tory Party.
Labour’s ‘new’ post-Brexit stance
It is the latest stage in what has already been a long, slow process, which I’ve discussed many times in the past on this blog, most recently in June of this year. This means that, in some respects, there is little that is new. Keir Starmer has been talking since July 2022 – although it seemed to have to be dragged out of him – about seeking to improve the terms of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), including a security pact and a veterinary agreement. And in January of this year Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy made what I argued was a significant speech, which included plans for closer and more harmonious relations with the EU.
However, Labour are now making relations with the EU a more central part of their electoral offer, and doing so more loudly and slightly more confidently, perhaps emboldened by the clear polling evidence that so many voters regard Brexit as having been a failure. Indeed the pollster Professor Sir John Curtice argues that Labour aren’t so much being bolder as “playing catch-up” with public opinion.
This began to be signalled by Starmer’s visit to meet Europol officials in The Hague last week to discuss enhanced cross-border intelligence cooperation, during which he announced Labour’s plans to strike a deal with the EU over irregular migration. Then, last weekend, he and David Lammy used a conference in Montreal to re-iterate that in government Labour would seek to re-set relations with the EU as their “number one” foreign policy goal. This isn’t just about the TCA, and would include participation in structured, formal strategic dialogue, presumably along the lines already offered by the EU but rebuffed by Rishi Sunak.
During the Montreal visit, Starmer also gave a major interview to the Financial Times, which, tellingly, was widely reported by other media outlets, including the BBC main news bulletins, pledging “to seek a major rewrite of Britain’s Brexit deal” as part of the TCA review in 2026. Subsequently, footage emerged, though it was hardly surprising, of him emphasising that, under Labour, there would be no desire to diverge from EU environmental, food and employment standards. Then, also widely reported, including in the French media, was Starmer’s trip, along with Lammy and Rachel Reeves, to Paris, where he held what seems to have been a positive meeting with Emmanuel Macron.
In last week’s post, I suggested that a Labour government might be able to fashion “a more coherent strategy, to the extent that it might pursue closer ties with the EU across all policy areas” and, even in the short period since then, it now seems clear that this is what they will offer. As such, again as I pointed out last week, it offers a contrast to the ad hoc and inconsistent Brexit ‘pragmatism’ of Rishi Sunak, constantly hamstrung by his own lack of vision as well as the leaden, lumpen, dead weight of his Brexit Ultra MPs, and the ever-present Conservative terror of a Farageist revival.
It’s worth adding that, for all that Starmer has repeatedly endorsed the hard Brexit red lines of not re-joining the EU or the single market, he has at least implicitly rejected the Tories’ doctrinaire opposition to (almost) any role for the ECJ. That in itself opens up some space for creating closer relationships with the EU, as it is often what precludes them (for example in relation to security and commercial database sharing). That is a contrast both with one of Theresa May’s original Lancaster House ‘red lines’ and with Boris Johnson’s adolescent ‘sovereignty first’ approach to the TCA negotiations.
Moreover, it is clear from his FT interview that Starmer has set his own red line against the ‘Brexit 2.0’ of derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which so many Brexit Ultras are agitating for and which, possibly, and I would think probably, will be adopted as Conservative policy after the next election. For that matter, given Sunak’s embrace this week of the anti-Net Zero agenda of the Tory right, it’s not inconceivable that, alongside promises of a fresh push to post-Brexit regulatory divergence, it will be their policy before the election. Some may regard Starmer’s stance as a small mercy, but I think it is rather more than that: Brexit itself is bad enough, but Brexit 2.0 on top of it would be even worse.
The Brexiters’ reactions
As this new, or newly communicated, approach from Labour began to emerge, the Brexiters’ knives were sharpened, if sharpness is a quality that can be applied to what, in both senses of the word, are such dull blades. Some of their reaction had a slightly surprising tinge. We’re well-used to them predicting the imminent collapse of the EU, but, in the Telegraph, both Associate Editor Camilla Tominey and columnist Nigel Farage were making the slightly different argument that, according to Tominey, only “poor deluded souls ‘remain’ under the illusion that the EU is some sort of friendly and progressive family of nations” whilst, according to Farage, “it is not the cuddly place Remainers think it is”. As evidence, both of them referred to the rise of the AfD in Germany, the illiberal regimes in Poland and Hungary, and the possibility of a Le Pen presidency in France. Why would “idiot remainers”, as Farage charmingly put it, want closer ties?
It was a strange line to take. There may be some remainers who are starry-eyed about the EU, but there are at least as many Brexiters who are constantly astonished that the EU is ‘mean’ and ‘unfriendly’ for reserving the rights and benefits of membership to its own members, something which most remainers see as self-evident. And even those with the mildest of liberal sensibilities hardly need instruction from Farage, of all people, about the dangers of neo-fascist and populist regimes. Beyond that, the very fact that individual members of the EU follow their own political paths gives the lie to the Brexiter claim that membership precludes national sovereignty.
But there is an even more fundamental issue, and it lies at the heart of the fallacy of Brexit. Brexiters used to say ‘we’re leaving the EU, not leaving Europe’, a slogan which, unusually, is simultaneously a truism, nonsense, and an important insight. The important insight is that, whether or not the UK is a member of the EU, the EU and its member states are there, right next door to us. Indeed, even if the EU didn’t exist at all, the nations of Europe would be there, right next door to us. Those irreducible geo-political facts mean that, whether in terms of trade, defence, irregular migration or anything else, the UK necessarily has a significant relationship with those countries.
So the issue is how, and how best, to relate to them. Brexiters have never even tried to give a reason why being absent from the institutions that link them is a better way of relating (as opposed to their claims about the supposed benefits domestically, or in terms of relating to non-EU countries and bodies). And they most certainly haven’t given any reason why, having decided to leave those institutions, a relationship of distance and antagonism is better than one of close cooperation.
Otherwise, most of the reactions from Tories, and Brexiters generally, to Labour’s approach have been fairly predictable. Early out of the trap, like an unusually well-conditioned Pavlovian dog hearing the distant ringing of a bell, David Frost dribbled that “Britain is now in serious danger of losing Brexit” because “Labour wants to take us back closer to the EU”. It didn’t make much sense as a critique, though. Frost, like many Brexiters, gives as his central ‘philosophical’ argument that democratically elected UK governments should be free to pursue whatever policies they judge to be in the UK’s best interests. So if such a government decides being closer to the EU is in the national interest, then, even in Frost’s own terms, it doesn’t mean ‘losing’ Brexit but enacting it.
A few days later, Frost came up with the even more predictable line of “Brexit betrayal”. If possible, this made even less sense than his previous effort, if only because, in insisting that the EU would not countenance an improvement to the TCA he negotiated, he not only negated his claim that it was already a wonderful deal – since he implicitly conceded that, were the EU minded to agree, a better deal is possible – he also negated the very claim that a ‘betrayal’ was in prospect.
In fact, this was a recurring contradiction in the Brexiters’ reaction, such as the Mail’s report on Starmer’s meeting with Macron. On the one hand, the prospects of the EU agreeing any re-negotiation were dismissed – strangely, the Brexiters have now abandoned all their claims about Britain ‘holding all the cards’ or ‘them needing us more than we need them’ – whilst, on the other hand, the non-outcome of this non-negotiation was presented as something to fear.
That aside, Frost’s second article was revealing in being laced with disparagement of the present Tory government for “paving the way” to Labour’s supposed betrayal, a good indicator of how the Tories will conduct their election defeat post-mortem. Frost will undoubtedly be a leading player in the autopsy, which seems almost certain to conclude that Sunak failed to be a ‘true’ Conservative and Brexiter. This will, again almost certainly, presage a lurch to the ‘National Conservative’ right. Liz Truss’s attempt this week to exhume the corpse of her disastrous ‘true Brexit’ premiership can also be seen as the beginning of the same dismal process, as discussed by Josh Self, the increasingly excellent political commentator who succeeded Ian Dunt as Editor of politics.co.uk.
Political dad dancing
The meta-issue in all this, shown by the reaction of Frost and numerous other Brexiters, is the endless betrayalist narrative that permeates Brexit. But its very endlessness shows its absurdity. Just how many times can Brexit be betrayed? And if it has already been betrayed then what does it matter what Labour now do? Similarly, having warned us in October 2019, and in December 2020, and in November 2022 that we were getting ‘Brexit in Name Only’, it is hard to imagine why anyone would feel greatly stirred by Nigel Farage’s latest hand-wringing about how “two years into a Labour government it will [be] Brexit in Name Only”.
In fact, generally, although the Brexiters’ attack on Labour’s plans will undoubtedly continue to resonate with hardcore Leave voters, it’s hard to see it having wider cut-through. Things have moved on from the ‘will of the people’ days, especially given how many voters, including leave voters, have become disillusioned with Brexit, and the way that Sunak’s government has already, in a limited way, accepted the deficiencies of the Johnson Brexit. In this sense, if Labour are still 'playing catch-up' with public opinion, the Tories are simply ignoring it.
For that matter, not only has there been little regulatory divergence from the EU under the Tories – because for the most part it is totally impractical, either politically or economically – but, also, there is considerable public support for things staying that way, including amongst leave voters, in line with Labour’s policy. Similarly, whilst Starmer’s mention of not diverging on environmental, food and employment standards got the predictable ‘betrayal’ treatment on this morning’s Mail front page, a commitment to at least non-regression of environmental and labour standards is part of the TCA that Johnson agreed.
However, the only songs the Brexiters have are the old ones. For example, in his moonlighting role as a GB News presenter, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s squeaky diatribe against Labour focused primarily on the possibility of re-negotiating the Brexit deal leading to the UK “shadowing” the EU through “alignment”. But it seemed embarrassingly dated, the political equivalent of dad dancing, given the numerous ways that this is happening under the Tories, for reasons very well-understood by Rees-Mogg himself, as illustrated by his support for the idea of the UK unilaterally adopting EU regulations and conformity assessment marking, so as to avoid the ‘red tape’ of divergence or duplication.
Rees-Mogg also deployed an altogether more cynical, and probably more electorally potent, criticism in suggesting that the public had thought that all the arguments about Brexit were over. This was the standard response from the Conservatives, with a government spokesperson telling the BBC that Starmer “wants to take Britain back to square one on Brexit, reopening the arguments of the past all over again”. It is a response that eschews any discussion about the merits of a closer relationship with the EU but instead plays upon the perhaps widespread desire amongst the electorate to simply not hear anything more about Brexit. Yet, apart from being cynical, it is also dishonest, since it is the Brexiters who constantly try to drag the debate back to the toxicity of 2016, not least with the accusation that any steps to a closer relationship are ‘betraying Brexit’.
By contrast, Labour’s policy is plainly an attempt to avoid ‘reopening the old arguments’ at all costs, hence Starmer’s insistence that there is no case to re-join the EU or the single market. That attempt attracts the hostility of Brexiters, who argue that his real agenda is rejoining, and that seeking a closer relationship is a route to this. But, ironically, it attracts as much hostility from re-joiners, who argue that his real agenda ought to be rejoining, and that seeking a closer relationship doesn’t offer any route to this.
Sir Keir Starmer pledged “to seek a major rewrite of Britain’s Brexit deal.”
My reading is slightly different. I think what Labour are doing, sensibly, is to try to ‘de-Brexitify’ the entire question of UK-EU relations, and to approach them as a policy issue that may be very different in detail, but no different in kind, from the way the UK conducts its relations with other friendly powers. Contrary to the Brexiters’ criticisms, that doesn’t entail reversing Brexit, but contrary to the re-joiners’ criticisms it does not preclude doing so, and is a necessary step to doing so.
If successful, normalizing relations, and not framing them constantly in terms of the now-dead question of whether to leave the EU, would be a good thing in itself, undoing some of the damage of Brexit, as well as providing at least one of the preconditions for a viable case for joining the EU to be made (another being an active campaign movement for doing so). To put that another way, whilst Brexiters are wrong to think that Starmer’s insistence that ‘there is no case to re-join’ conceals a current intention to do just that, it really shouldn’t be difficult for re-joiners to envisage that, at some time down the line, he will say that circumstances have changed and that there is now such a case.
It may well be that Labour, at least in public statements, are pinning far too much on the TCA review, which is designed as a technical stock-taking exercise rather than a vehicle for re-negotiation. This week, the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) research centre produced an excellent report on this, explaining that, as things stand, the EU is likely to approach the review from just such a ‘minimalist’ perspective, and that if a Labour government wants to make the scope more ‘maximalist’, then the onus will be on it to persuade the EU that this is worthwhile, which won’t be easy. Moreover, even if that persuasion is successful in setting a maximalist agenda, then pursuing it to a successful conclusion will take a long time to negotiate. Peter Foster and Andy Bounds of the Financial Times provided a similarly cautious analysis.
However, an interesting Twitter (or X, or perhaps ex-Twitter) thread by Mujtaba Rahman, the well-connected and insightful Europe MD of the Eurasia Group, offered a perhaps more subtle, and rather more optimistic, perspective. Amongst other things, he argues that the importance of changing the tone of the UK-EU relationship shouldn’t be underestimated. That’s not, as is sometimes dismissively suggested, for the naïve reason of thinking that a more ‘friendly’ atmosphere will make much concrete difference, but because Labour look set to bring what Rahman characterizes as a “more consistent, more serious and more forward-leaning engagement” than the UK government has shown since 2016. That, along with greater realism than the Tories have shown, could create new incentives for the EU to engage with the UK.
Domestically, Rahman suggests that Labour ruling out all forms of re-joining gives them “political cover” to make non-trivial improvements. It’s true, as the UKICE report points out, that even the maximalist version of the TCA review would not greatly shift the economic dial, but the report also provides a list of the substantive improvements that could result. Of course, they aren’t going to ‘make Brexit work’, but it simply isn’t true, despite what most re-joiner critics of Labour insist, that Starmer’s red lines preclude any progress of any value at all. Indeed, that’s demonstrated by the UKICE point that the maximalist version of the TCA review would require protracted negotiation. That would hardly be so if the possible changes were as trivial as those critics claim.
Rahman also points out that the positions of both Labour and the EU are in flux, with many possible outcomes. One indication of this was the publication this week of a Franco-German plan, reported by The Times as being “designed with Labour in mind”, although better understood as part of a far broader EU discussion about enlargement, for new forms of tiered ‘associate membership’ of the EU, within which the UK might find a place. It’s not an altogether new idea, although the context is, and a shadow minister was quick to disown any interest in it, which is unsurprising as it goes much further than Labour are willing to go this side of the election. But it does point to the way that, as Ian Dunt of the i put it, “a new kind of European future” could emerge for Britain.
The domestic choice
Whether or not that is so, the domestic politics of Brexit are becoming clearer, at least in terms of what the alternative to the Tories’ approach consists of. It is a Labour, or perhaps Labour-led, government which won’t offer (and, arguably, couldn’t deliver, at least in its first term) a reversal of hard Brexit, but will develop as close and as harmonious a relationship as the EU will agree to short of that. That isn’t just about the TCA review, but the entirety of the ongoing relationship.
That opens some clear water between the parties, though it is of slender breadth. As Rafael Behr eloquently put it in the Guardian, “the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are both shopping for European policy in the narrow aisle between economic grasp of the problem and political fear of the remedy”. The difference, though, is slightly greater than it seems, and greater than Behr perhaps allows, not so much in itself as in the direction and speed of travel it points to. Just as it is now widely understood, even by most Brexiters, that Brexit is a process, not an event, the same holds for ‘de-Brexitificaton’ and even ‘de-Brexiting’, if they are to happen.
The problem, of course, as Behr concludes, is that “time is already running out”. More accurately, the problem is the tension between two different timescales. The more time that passes since the 2016 referendum, the more the toxicity of Brexit recedes, the more its sensitivity as a political issue reduces, the more the generation of politicians which was obsessed with getting it passes, and the more the electoral demographic that most supported it is replaced by that which was most opposed to it. On the other hand, the more time that goes by without being a member of at least the single market, the more the economic damage racks up as, without also being a member of the EU, does the geo-political damage.
Within that framing, the first timescale isn’t much affected by who is in power, but would be slightly accelerated by a Labour government if only because that would marginalize Tory Brexiter politicians. The second timescale could be slightly shortened by a Labour government, and the interim damage slightly reduced, or possibly considerably reduced compared with what a Tory government might decide to do if elected.
It may not seem like much of a choice, but it is a choice, and this week made it clearer than ever that it will be the one facing us at the next election. The outcome will make some difference to post-Brexit policy in the following years, but could make a huge difference to the choices available in the election after that.