Brexit: Keir Starmer defends Labour’s refusal to vote for single market, insisting battle could not be won

Brexit spokesman denies party is throwing away the chance to inflict devastating defeat on the government next week

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 06 June 2018 09:45 BST
Keir Starmer defends Labour’s refusal to vote for single market, insisting battle could not be won

Labour is too divided on staying in the single market to win a crunch Commons vote next week, Keir Starmer has argued – as he defended his own “wrecking” amendment.

The party’s Brexit spokesman hit back at pro-EU Labour MPs, insisting they were wrong to claim the chance to defeat the government on the key issue is being tossed away.

Sir Keir has come under fire after tabling an amendment that stops short of staying in the European Economic Area (EEA) – while Labour MPs will be ordered to abstain in a separate vote on the EEA.

But he said a significant number of rank-and-file Labour backbenchers – as well as Jeremy Corbyn and his allies – opposed this “Norway option”, which made defeating the Tories impossible.

Prominent MPs from Brexit-backing northern seats, including Caroline Flint, John Spellar and John Mann, have ruled out the EEA’s requirement to keep free movement of citizens.

Sir Keir said he wished he could “report complete unanimity”, but said there were “very divided views” on the EEA, which would effectively keep the UK in the single market.

Turning on critics including Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna, he said: “Their own colleagues in the party were indicting they were not prepared to vote for it.

“The pretence that somehow everybody in the Labour party is in the same place on this, and therefore it is winnable, is a pretence and really doesn’t help.”

Sir Keir’s amendment – demanding the government pursue “full access” to the EU single market – is seen as a further shift to “the softest possible” Brexit.

However, it is certain to fail in next week’s vote, because Tory rebels will not support it – whereas the amendment for EEA membership, already passed by the Lords, was seen as having a greater chance of success.

The Blairite group Progress attacked a “wrecking amendment”, while Mr Leslie said: “Just as it’s within the grasp of the Labour party to defeat the government, the leadership drops the ball and turns away.”

Mr Umunna said: “All the way through the passage of this bill, the only amendments which have commanded support on both sides of the House, and passed, are cross-party backbench ones.”

But Sir Keir, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, denied he was putting party unity before what was right for the country, saying: “I’m injecting some honesty about where we are in the Labour Party.”

The new policy – to adopt EU “standards, rights and protections” and rule out any “new impediments to trade” – is seen as a soft Brexit shift, while trying to keep Leave-backing Labour supporters on board.

Sir Keir will also hope to minimise his party’s split by cutting the number of Labour rebels on the EEA amendment below the mooted 60-80.

However, the EU would be certain to reject full access to the single market if Labour refused to accept its much prized “four freedoms” – including the free movement of people.

Yesterday, the Norwegian prime minister, Erna Solberg, expressed surprise that the UK would wish to adopt her country’s half in, half out relationship with the EU.

“Why should you leave the EU if you are accepting that?” she asked, in an interview with the Politico website.

She suggested the “Norway model” would not fulfil the 2016 referendum result.

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