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Expert View

Labour takes another step towards a sensible Brexit

by Denis MacShane | 11.12.2017

Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and was a Labour MP for 18 years.

Churchill once described the Tory leader and World War One Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, as a “cat walking delicately and unsoiled across a rather muddy street”. The same feline skills can now be seen in Labour’s leadership team as they glide towards an ever-softer Brexit and even a new referendum, always keeping one step ahead of the Conservatives.  

Long gone are the platitudes of the immediate post-referendum period when Labour breezily talked of exiting the single market and customs union and suggested proposals to create different types of controls on EU workers with regional or seasonal variations or a passport for London, like something from Gosplan central manpower planning of the Soviet era.

Now Labour are enjoying watching internal Tory turmoil on Brexit. Having cheered Theresa May on for securing a Brussels Yes to moving to Phase 2 of the Article 50 negotiations, pro-Brexit cabinet members went into print and onto the BBC over the weekend to backpedal furiously as they felt the wrath of the hardline Brexit ideologues.

Into the muddied confusion came Labour’s Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. The latter told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show about “staying in a customs union and a single market variant which means full participation in single market”. He admitted this could involve “easy movement” for workers and continued payments to the EU and said he didn’t have a problem keeping our rules aligned to the rest of Europe’s as “we’re comfortable staying on a level playing field”.

None of these positions are fully defined and Labour spokespersons such as John McDonnell make heavy weather of the definite and indefinite article – as between “a” and “the” customs union, or “a” and “the” single market. But at least there is a clear demarcation from the official Conservative line.

The new courage in the top ranks of Labour comes from three sources. First, the constant social media attacks that Labour was no different from the Tories on Brexit, with Jeremy Corbyn being an echo chamber for May’s lines on Brexit has been getting through. Team Corbyn want to stay in touch with young voters on Facebook and Twitter. These voters do not want to lose the right to live, work or travel in Europe.

Second, the TUC is now arguing strongly for staying in the customs union and single market. The TUC leader, Frances O’Grady, in The Times today says that copying the Canada-EU trade deal now promoted by David Davis is a disaster for workers as it excludes existing EU social protection. Trade unions support for the customs union and single market creates space for Labour leaders to be several steps ahead of the Conservatives.

Finally, more and more Labour MPs now back a new consultation with the public. The popular and respected Swansea Labour MP, Geraint Davies, is today publishing his “Withdrawal from the EU (Referendum)” bill, which provides a referendum on the negotiated EU exit package to give voters the final say on Brexit. The bill is symbolic but catches a growing sense in Labour ranks that the people, not a divided incoherent cabinet, should have the last word on Britain being amputated from Europe.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

8 Responses to “Labour takes another step towards a sensible Brexit”

  • Already we are losers from Brexit……… devaluation and loss of European financial and medicine authorities.

    Are the British people so stupid that they will choose a fight with one against 27 ?

  • The way out has been offered by the EU on a plate. See the Draft Guidelines from European Council at https://g8fip1kplyr33r3krz5b97d1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/2017-12-08-08-37_01.pdf.

    Items 3 and 4 say:

    3. As regards transition, the European Council notes the proposal put forward by the United Kingdom for a transition period of around two years, and agrees to negotiate a transition period covering the whole of theEU acquis,while the United Kingdom, as a third country, will no longer participate in or nominate or elect members of the EU institutions.
    4. Such transitional arrangements, which will be part of the Withdrawal Agreement, must be in the interest of the Union, clearly defined and limited in time. In order to ensure a level playing field based on the same rules applying throughout the Single Market, changes to the acquis adopted by EU institutions and bodies will have to apply both in the United Kingdom and the EU.All existing Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures will also apply. As the United Kingdom will remain a member of
    the Customs Union and the Single Market (with all four freedoms) during the transition, it will have to continue to apply and collect EU customs tariffs and ensure all EU checks are being performed on the border vis-à-vis other third countries.

    This amounts to full colonial status – Canada before it became a Dominion.

    But this is such a package that it will require more than an agreement – it requires a full scale treaty – pretty like TFEU actually. How can the UK collect European Tariffs from “other third countries unless its actually a member (see Article 29) It’s getting pretty close to no Brexit at all. Just a small jump to giving up on Brexit altogether.

  • There is no such thing as a sensible brexit, the only sensible outcome is NO brexit. We must stay IN the EU for the future of our children, and their children.

  • Finally something to hope for. Keeping the hard core exit team under control will take some doing but there may be a solution without a civil war.

  • After two days, this is the fifth post on here. A great web site, well written and up to date. So why is it not engaging the audience it deserves?
    I think it shares one problem with all the other Remainer sites – we are talking to each other, not the wider public. Most of these groups don’t even have a name which describes what they are about – including this one. Given the hundreds of billions at stake over the decision to stay in the market or not, the potentially disastrous lack of willing fellow Europeans to come here to work ( pace the NHS’s shocking shortfall in nursing recruitment) surely the Remain lobby should be working on a single campaign to bring more of the general public to their senses. With a proper, overarching strategy and a few million pounds, we could make a major impact on both parliamentarians and the public.
    Does Infacts agree and would they want to attend a meeting to explore this further ( I have had talks with several groups already and while everyone agrees that a combined approach would be best, there is little energy going into this crucial issue.

  • More and more people are telling me that they will vote Labour and for JC, if he gets off the fence and agrees to NO BREXIT under Labour.
    Brexit is the most idiotic, crazy, damaging and unwise public policy ever conceived, we must stay in the EU, for stability, social and financial well being of the UK.

  • You are right, Mr. Greenwood. The media is constantly slipping into this kind of trap, talking about Brexit “progress” etc, but In Facts should know better.

  • To Peter Hehir

    You can join the European Movement, subscribe to the New European, one or two things like that. But if there was a medium with the reach of the Daily Mail and the finances of Arron Banks, Brexit woud be a dead duck.