Labour plays down reports of Brexit divisions

Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer
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Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has played down reports of a conflict over the party’s stance on immigration and access to the single market, as he made it clear the party will oppose any move toward a “hard” exit from the EU.

Setting out Labour’s official priorities for negotiations in a speech to members today, Mr Starmer stressed that his party is commitment to building a “strong” relationship with the EU and securing continued access to European markets.

He also criticised the Government for hinting at more “extreme” forms of Brexit – including withdrawal from the customs union – which he warned will leave Britain “isolated and detached”.

But he dismissed suggestions that this view is at odds with the position of fellow Labour MP Andy Burnham, who last week claimed single market access “is not necessarily right” for the North.

“I think what Andy was reflecting was what he’s hearing on the doorsteps during the course of his campaign,” Mr Starmer told this paper.

“I spent a lot of time as shadow immigration minister... in the North West and the North East, and it is absolutely clear that immigration is a cause for concern.

“We the Labour party need to listen to that and respond to that.

“Entering negotiations it is quite right that we should argue for tariff free access to the single market and adjustments to freedom of movement.”

The shadow ministers comments come amid increased speculation about the party’s stance on key areas of Brexit policy.

While a number of MPs – including Yorkshire’s Dan Jarvis and John Healey – are calling for tighter controls on immigration, shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot has expressed support for free movement as a fundamental condition of single market access.

In an attempt to settle the debate, Mr Starmer used Tuesday’s speech to commit Labour firmly to curbing migration as part of negotiations on trade.

But he also told reporters that in terms of the overarching aims of the party “there isn’t as much division as people think”.

The London MP went on to attack the Government for failing to set out its own negotiating strategy, accusing ministers of “veering” between a “hard, extreme Brexit” and a “vaguer, undefined” model.

He claimed this has sent a message to Brussels that the UK wants “out of the single market [and] out of the customs union” in favour of a new status as a “remote third party”.

He warned that his would leave Britain “shut off” from European markets and 500 million potential customers.

“[This] global race to the bottom... would not only put our economy and jobs at risk, but... would also abandon our shared scientific, educational and cultural endeavours with the EU,” he said.

Mr Starmer also used his speech to hit out at the Lib Dems, and their calls for a second referendum. He accused the party of offering remain supporters a “false promise” to frustrate the Brexit process.

He said it also left the party with “absolutely nothing” to say to the 52% of people who voted to leave.

He warned that Labour must not “fall into the same trap” and risk alienating half the population.

“A party that can only speak to and for half a nation cannot forge a bold inclusive vision of the future capable of working for everyone,” he said.