13 April 2018

An exchange by the Shadow Trade Secretary on Question Time last night leaves a core strand of Labour’s Brexit policy in question.

I wrote previously about Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry’s comments that the Labour Party would vote yes to the “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal in October (?) even if – as she expected – the Government brought back a “blah blah blah divorce”. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer insisted that Labour’s six tests were serious, but since then a tape has emerged of Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner speaking at a meeting in Brussels. Much attention focused on Gardiner’s dismissal of the Good Friday Agreement as a Shibboleth, but Gardiner also called Labour’s tests“bollocks”, rather endorsing Thornberry’s earlier remarks. Last night Gardiner appeared on Question Time and was quizzed about his words.

Here’s what Gardiner, who is generally quite impressive in his grasp of detail, said:

The government said it will negotiate a free trade agreement that delivers the exact same benefits as we have as members of the EU. I don’t believe they can. And that is, what I rather colourfully expressed, as beyond credibility.

Labour’s test is absolutely right. It’s to hold the government to account for their promise.
We set out our own policy on a new customs union with the EU and a transitional agreement, where we stay in the single market and the customs union to give us a seamless transition for businesses, to project jobs and growth in the country.

My point is a simple one: if you want all the benefits of the club, you stay in it. I campaigned to remain. I would have liked to remain, but we are leaving and we need to try and make it work. There may be other benefits to leaving, but the Tories should be honest with people. They are trying to convince the public that they can leave the club and have the exact same benefits – they can’t

When pressed by David Dimbleby about his description of the “exact same benefits test” as “bollocks”, he continued:

I was talking about the idea that you could have the exact same benefits, exactly the lady’s [in the audience’s] point. If you leave the club, the club’s not going to give you the exact same benefits. And that’s why our test is right – to say: look, you can’t have it

Dimbleby said: “So you’ll vote against any deal the Tories come up with?”

Gardiner replied:

Let them try and come up with one. They’ve had all this time and they still can’t come up with one. They had been so paralysed as a cabinet in trying to get an agreement between themselves that they haven’t managed to finish the original negotiations in time about the divorce settlement. We don’t know what that’s going to be. And goodness knows what they will come up with for the free trade agreement.

Gardiner is very clearly saying that he does not think it is possible to leave the club and have the “exact same benefits”. That is obviously correct, not least because to do so would breach a very clear EU red line (that no deal outside can be as good as a deal inside). Why then does Keir Starmer still insist that Labour’s tests are serious?

The only conclusion is that this is about politics not policy. It’s about creating artificial dividing lines with the Government, where Labour seek to suggest (especially ahead of local elections) that their Brexit would be softer, knowing that they won’t be tested on this because they’re in Opposition. If Brexit cannot deliver the “exact same benefits” then why include that requirement as one of your tests…it’s not – for want of a better word – meaningful. If leaving the EU will always mean the benefits won’t be exactly the same then either admit now that you cannot support leaving (in which case why vote for Article 50?) or drop a test that’s inherently bogus.

It’s also about politics in another way – Labour is still having its own internal negotiation over Brexit. Keir Starmer won a long battle to shift the policy on leaving the EU Customs Union to the new policy of seeking to form a (probably impossible) customs union over which the UK as a non-EU member gets a say. Maintaining the tests allow Keir and others in his position to hold open the option of ultimately voting against the Brexit deal at the end of the negotiation process. I think that’s unlikely for various reasons, including Barnier’s recent comments, but those political negotiations are ongoing within the Labour party.