Keir Starmer refuses to back Brexit transition extension

Decision on further delay to be made next month

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 11 May 2020 10:23 BST
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Keir Starmer would rather Brexit negotiations 'were completed as quickly as possible'

Keir Starmer has rejected calls for the Brexit transition period to be extended, saying he would rather “the negotiations were completed as quickly as possible”.

The deadline for agreeing a further extension to the transition period is next month, and some opposition parties, including the SNP and Lib Dems, have called for the government to request one in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

If no extension is agreed then the UK will leave the single market at the end of the year with or without a deal – potentially taking significant economic damage.

The Labour leader said he didn’t think it was practical to agree a deal by December but that he nevertheless wanted to “see how we get on” in talks.

Asked whether he would support an extension with the deadline looming in June, Sir Keir told LBC Radio: “The government says it’s going to get negotiations and a deal done by the end of the year.

“I’ve always thought that’s tight and pretty unlikely, but we’re going to hold them to that and see how they get on. They say they’re going to do it.”

Pushed again to clarify his position on the issue, he said: “I would seek to ensure that the negotiations were completed as quickly as possible. I’ve not called for a pause because the government says it’s going to get it done by the end of the year. So let’s see how they get on.

“I don’t think it’s practical but we’re a long way from December so we’ll see how we get on. But the government has said we can do it within the 12 months, so let’s see.”

Boris Johnson has said he will not support an extension under any circumstances, despite negotiating a mechanism to call for one into the withdrawal agreement. The European Commission has said it would be happy to agree an extension in light of the pandemic and pressures on negotiations.

If no free trade agreement is agreed before the UK leaves the transition period – during which is is treated like an EU member state – the economic damage from the sharp break with Europe is expected to be significant.

Talks so far have got off to a slow start, with two rounds being cancelled due to the pandemic. Negotiations have resumed via videoconferencing, but both sides are still far apart on issues such as fishing, human rights, state aid, and the role of the EU’s court.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said Brussels is open to a further extension

Polling suggests strong public support for extending the transition period in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sir Keir was also asked about Labour’s policy to help renters during the Covid-19 lockdown, which some critics have said favours landlords over tenants.

He defended not calling for a rent holiday, telling a caller: “If all rents are suspended full stop, then the government will have to pay to compensate landlords, there’s no question about that. Therefore public money will be paid to landlords to compensate for the fact they haven’t got rent, even when people don’t lose their jobs.”

Under Labour’s plan, renters would be given two years to pay back any arrears they have accrued – but critics have said this would amount to a rent rise during a recession. The Labour leader said that he also believed “the benefit system should be paying the rent at a better rate” for people who lose their jobs.

On a separate question of employees going back to work, Sir Keir was asked whether he would support a trade union with safety concerns urging workers to stay off the job. The Labour leader said “we’d have to look at it” but added “I do think everybody’s entitled to a safe place at work”.

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