A Labour government would guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Britain “on day one”, Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said on Tuesday as he tried to paper over the party’s divisions on Europe.
But Sir Keir’s latest attempt to explain Labour’s Europe policy indicated the torture that the issue has inflicted on a pro-EU party whose voters are largely supporters of Brexit: some 70 per cent of Labour constituencies voted Leave.
Sir Keir attempted to clarify a policy that remains open-ended in many areas. While the Conservatives want a clean Brexit and the Liberal Democrats are offering a second referendum and a route back into the EU, Labour’s policy is complex and hedged.
In a sign of the confusion, Sir Keir’s frontbench colleague, Paul Blomfeld, said Labour would agree to a second EU referendum if there was “popular demand” for one at some point. That contradicted a spokesman for Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, who said this week that a second referendum “is not our policy and it won’t be in our manifesto”.
Sir Keir’s offer to respect the rights of EU nationals in Britain immediately was one of the few policy statements that gained applause from his audience. He called it “shameful” that Theresa May, the prime minister, was not committing her party to the same policy.
He added that Labour might try to keep Britain in the EU’s customs union, even if that meant forfeiting the right to strike bilateral trade deals elsewhere in the world. “We should make sure we have options on the table,” he said.
Sir Keir admitted that staying in the single market under existing rules would not be “viable” but suggested there might be some way of staying if Brussels showed more flexibility.
On free movement, a condition of single market membership, he said: “We accept immigration rules will have to change when we leave the EU.” But asked whether EU workers with a job offer should be allowed to come to Britain, he said: “Yes.”
Sir Keir said MPs should be consulted on the Brexit talks and should have the right to veto a draft deal in late 2018, giving time for the prime minister to reopen talks in Brussels to secure a better deal.
He was unable to explain whether Britain would remain in the EU should parliament continue to veto the deal, although he said there would have to be limits on the number of times the prime minister could be sent back to Brussels.
Sir Keir also appeared to suggest that a Labour prime minister would eventually accept whatever deal was on offer: “No deal is the worst possible deal,” he said. “It would cause huge damage to our business and trade.”
Labour would introduce an EU rights and protections bill in place of Mrs May’s repeal bill, focusing on maintaining European standards in workplace and environmental safeguards.
Mr Corbyn hopes to move the election debate on to other issues such as the NHS and education, but Mrs May is determined to contrast her approach on Brexit to what Peter Mandelson has called Labour’s “equivocal” stance on Europe.
The Conservatives have stayed away from the election fray this week, preferring to wait on the sidelines while Labour’s tensions on issues such as the Trident nuclear deterrent and Europe play out in public.
Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister, has warned the party that any attempt to sideline Brexit as an issue in the election campaign — for example, by talking about schools and hospitals — is doomed to failure.
Mr Blair, who wants a second referendum on a final EU deal, wrote in The Guardian newspaper on Tuesday that Labour should make a virtue of saying “let’s make up our minds when we see what deal Theresa May gets”. He added: “The alternative — to talk about something else — will not be powerful enough in the context of this election.”