April 25, 2017, 6:01 p.m.
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Keir Starmer on Tuesday offered voters a choice between a Conservative government bent on securing a hard Brexit at any cost and a Labour government which would take a more flexible approach. Labour accepts that Britain must leave the EU following last year’s referendum but Starmer said that protecting the country’s economic interests must trump other considerations, including controlling immigration.
Unlike Theresa May, Labour would not take the options of remaining in the single market and the customs union off the table before the start of negotiations, although he acknowledged that full single market membership is probably impossible. And Labour would immediately, unilaterally guarantee the right of all EU nationals now in Britain to continue to live and work in the country.
The trouble for Labour is that its new Brexit blueprint comes after months of dithering, confusion and compromise which left voters, party members and even its own MPs unclear about the difference between Labour and the Conservatives on how Britain should leave the EU.
Starmer said that free movement of people would have to end after Brexit but as the Conservatives pointed out minutes later, shadow home secretary Dianne Abbott has said the opposite on at least four occasions since the referendum, a view that has been echoed by Jeremy Corbyn.
Two out of three Labour voters opposed Brexit in last year’s referendum but 70 per cent of Labour MPs represent constituencies which voted Leave, placing the party in a predicament unlike that of any other. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party have clear, pro-European positions, even if a substantial minority of their supporters voted Leave. And the Conservatives have rallied around May as a strong leader who will fulfil her promise to make Brexit happen and negotiate a good deal from the EU on the way out.
In the months after the referendum, Labour was so pre-occupied by a perceived threat from Ukip to its seats in the North and the Midlands that it failed to offer meaningful resistance to the government over Brexit. Since then, Ukip has imploded but the resurgent Liberal Democrats threaten to capture Labour seats in London and other cities, boosted by angry Remainers who feel let down by Labour over Brexit.
Labour now faces the prospect of losing many of its pro-Brexit supporters to the Conservatives, while Remainers defect to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Corbyn’s leadership is a problem for both groups, with Brexiteers viewing him as too weak to stand up to the EU while Remainers doubt his commitment to maintaining a close relationship with Europe.
Starmer’s speech is unlikely to win back many defectors to the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, but it could help to steady the nerve of Labour waverers, persuading them that the party now has a distinct policy in favour of the softest feasible Brexit and against a disorderly exit from the EU.