Barry Gardiner describes key part of Labour's Brexit strategy as 'b******s'

Frontbencher rubbishes the idea that the UK could get 'exact same benefits' after leaving EU – one of Labour's six tests

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 10 April 2018 16:55
Tony Blair hopes Brexit doesn't impair Good Friday Agreement

A Labour frontbencher has described a key part of his own party’s Brexit strategy as “b******s” at an event where he also came under fire for calling the Good Friday Agreement a “shibboleth”.

Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, rubbished the idea that the UK could secure the “exact same benefits” after Brexit – one of Labour’s six tests if it were to support the final Brexit deal.

His remarks, which were caught on tape, emerged after the Brent North MP had to apologise for claiming the Good Friday Agreement had been “played up” during the Brexit talks for political and economic gain during the same event in Brussels.

In a new recording, obtained by the BBC, Mr Gardiner reportedly said: “Well let’s just take one test – the exact same benefits. B******s.

“Always has been b******s and it remains it.

“We know very well that we cannot have the exact same benefits and actually it would have made sense – because it was the Tories that said they were going to secure the exact same benefits – and our position should have been to say they have said they are going to secure the exact same benefits and we are going to hold them to that standard.”

Mr Gardiner’s comments put him at odds with the Labour leadership, as the party has vowed only to support the government’s final Brexit deal if the six key tests are met.

Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer laid out the demands last year, which include calls for fair migration, protecting workers’ rights and replicating the benefits of staying in the single market.

Sir Keir stood by these demands in an exclusive article for The Independent last month, where he insisted Labour was prepared to vote down any Brexit deal that fails to meet these standards.

A Labour spokesperson backed the under-fire frontbencher, saying: “Labour has set six tests for the final Brexit deal. Those include holding the government to its own commitment to deliver the same benefits as the single market and customs union.

“We have been clear that, if those tests are not met, Labour will not back it in parliament. Barry Gardiner fully supports that position.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn insisted that Mr Gardiner had not denounced Labour’s Brexit policies, and that their recent conversations had been productive and “very positive”.

However, the remarks drew criticism from Labour former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie, who said Mr Gardiner’s ”increasingly maverick” behaviour was embarrassing for his colleagues.

Mr Leslie, a supporter of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign, said: “It is time members of the shadow cabinet started speaking out for that and ended the sort of eccentric self-indulgence of the type shown by Barry Gardiner.”

Ian Murray, co-chair of Scottish Labour for the Single Market, said his choice to “trash Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit policy” was significant as it exposed faultl ines in Labour’s approach.

Mr Gardiner apologised on Tuesday morning after another recording from the event in March emerged, in which he suggested the Good Friday Agreement was outdated.

He originally said reports of his comments were “nonsense on stilts”, but the Corbyn loyalist was forced to row back when audio footage was published online.

Speaking at the event, Mr Gardiner said: “We must also recognise that there are real economic reasons why people have played up the issue of the Irish border and the need to have the shibboleth of the Good Friday Agreement.

“And that is because it is hugely in the Republic of Ireland’s economic interest to make sure that there is no tariff and no external border there.

“And of course there are very good political reasons. Sinn Fein, who are members of this group and trusted colleagues, of course want to see the unification of Ireland and that is a political objective of Sinn Fein.

“But it doesn’t mean that a normal border will bring back paramilitary activity.”

He later issued a statement, saying the Good Friday Agreement was “a vital and essential part” of the relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland that has been “central to the two decades of peace”.

“I am deeply sorry that my informal remarks in a meeting last month have led to misunderstanding on that point – in particular, that my use of the word ‘shibboleth’ in its sense of ‘password’ or ‘test of membership’ gave the impression that I thought the Good Friday Agreement was in any way outdated or unimportant. I absolutely do not,” he said.

Former shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith, who was sacked for urging the party to stay in the single market, attacked his Labour colleague for the remarks, which he described as “both reckless and plain wrong”.

Former prime minister Tony Blair, who played a key role in securing the deal, also said it was “not a shibboleth, it was absolutely fundamental to keeping the peace” in Northern Ireland.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t know how anybody could say that. It’s the only basis on which you could have peace.”

On the 20th anniversary of the historic peace deal, five former Northern Ireland secretaries penned a sternly worded letter warning against a hard border, which they said could “threaten the very existence” of the peace deal.

In a joint letter to The Times, Lord Mandelson, Lord Reid, Lord Hain, Lord Murphy and Shaun Woodward said: “We are concerned that the reintroduction of a hard border will lead to instability that could threaten the very existence of the agreement.

“Those who value the agreement and the peace it brought to Northern Ireland have a duty to speak up and make clear their opposition to the government’s Brexit policy. They should insist that the option of continuing in the customs union and single market remains open.”

Former US president Bill Clinton, Mr Blair and former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern were among those marking the 20th anniversary of the landmark deal at Queen’s University in Belfast on Tuesday.

The agreement, which included the release of hundreds of political prisoners, was codified by the British and Irish governments, with the backing of most Northern Irish parties, but not the Democratic Unionist Party.

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