29 March 2018

It’s a year to go until the end of the Article 50 period when Britain will officially leave the EU and become a third country. And despite plenty of missteps and mistakes, the UK Government will be able to look back this Easter at the progress that has been made so far. Yes, major issues remain to be resolved on the Irish border question, and – as David Davis told Andrew Neil yesterday – on regulation and matters like taxation (the so-called ‘level playing field’ issues). But both sides have reached agreement on the UK’s financial obligation to the EU, on citizens’ rights and various other matters. The EU already has an outline of a future deal which would guarantee tariff-free trade. At the December and March Council meetings, both sides reached agreement, even if that meant kicking the can down the road on sticky issues.

Meanwhile a new question mark has opened up over Labour’s Brexit policy. Yesterday the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, told an event at Chatham House that Labour would “probably pass” the Brexit vote, even if – as she predicted – the Government had only achieved a “blah blah blah divorce” by October. This was quite a significant admission and provoked a quick row with Labour backbenchers.

Labour’s Brexit lead Sir Keir Starmer has spent months carefully constructing political dividing lines with the Government. Starmer has outlined six tests which any Brexit deal would supposedly be required to meet in order to win Labour’s support, including that the deal would need to guarantee the exact same benefits as the Customs Union and Single Market. Thornberry, with what the Shadow Chancellor later argued was just “good old-fashioned British sarcasm”, dismissed these tests.

At an event on Monday at the Irish Embassy, Sir Keir gave a keynote speech on Labour’s Brexit policy. The BBC’s Carolyn Quinn asked a question about the risks of voting down a withdrawal agreement and what Labour’s plan would be in such a circumstance. Sir Keir said what happens if the deal that “comes back [in October] isn’t one that satisfies that commitment [for no hard border], that we don’t think keeps the commitment in Phase One for no hard border. Are we then just to go to no deal?….There has to be a point at which we say no”.

As I pointed out in the panel discussion afterwards, it’s impossible to imagine the EU agreeing to such a deal which erected a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the first place. Neither side want a hard border and both have committed to avoiding one. A deal erecting a hard border is a scenario that simply will not arise. So it was strange that Starmer used that as an example of a deal that would be voted down by Labour.

Thornberry’s comments may have been sarcastic or flippant but they were revealing. Sir Keir’s tests are political tests. How can any Brexit deal achieve the exact same benefits as the Single Market and Customs Union? That is an impossible bar to reach. It’s fantasy policy but arguably clever politics. And anyway, one person’s benefit is – after all – another’s problem. Labour’s policy is to end Free Movement, but in the view of many, Free Movement is a benefit of the Single Market. The idea of keeping the exact same benefits comes from some rather careless David Davis remarks which have been (deliberately) misinterpreted by Labour and used to construct a political test.

Thornberry’s casual dismissal of the tests reveals the difficulty of Labour’s position. Sir Keir wants to suggest that there’s a serious possibility of Labour voting down the deal. Thornberry – probably closer to the leadership than Sir Keir – suggests there isn’t. Today, Sir Keir has hit back with a ‘clarifying’ article in the Independent, maintaining that Labour could and would vote down the deal. But the doubt continues, not least because voting down the deal would risk meaning that the UK simply left the EU without any sort of a deal and would jeopardise businesses, EU citizens and much else besides.

Whatever Government figures may argue, it seems that the UK won’t get much beyond Heads of Terms on a future agreement with the EU by the time the vote on the withdrawal deal arrives in Parliament. The exact future deal can’t really be tested against Labour’s six tests because it likely won’t have been finalised until well into the transition. Therefore it remains probable that Labour will let the deal pass in October (or whenever it comes to Parliament), exactly as Thornberry revealed yesterday.