Keir Starmer has spent much of the last week scrambling to define his stance on Israel and Gaza after criticism from his own party’s MPs, councillors and activists and fears that any backlash by Muslim voters could cost Labour up to 30 seats at the next general election.
A future peace in the Middle East rightly remains top of the political priority list right now, but the man who is likely to be Britain’s prime minister should also be mindful of another issue on which his own views diverge sharply from those of many Labour supporters: Brexit.
Wary of reopening a hugely divisive issue ahead of an election which needs to be held in the next 15 months, Starmer continues to tell Britain that he is focused not on rejoining the EU but on capitalising on the opportunities presented by an already scheduled 2025 review of Boris Johnson’s disastrous Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA). “As we go into 2025 we will attempt to get a much better deal for the UK,” Labour’s leader said in September.
But the limits of what can truly be achieved in the renegotiations were spelled out by Michel Barnier, who represented the EU in talks with Johnson and his equally talented sidekick David Frost, on ITV’s Peston show on Wednesday night.
The 72-year-old told host Robert Peston: “There is no room for any kind of renegotiation of substance… there is no room for any kind of unravelling of the single market. We can improve the technical details – for example, veterinary relations to facilitate export for animals or vegetables – but you have to be out or in. The UK could have chosen to stay in the customs union or single market as in Norway, but the choice was to leave. There is no compromise. You have to be out or in.”
Barnier’s blunt verdict should serve as a reality check for Starmer. We all know why he is reluctant to talk about rejoining either the EU or the single market – apart from brusquely ruling out either possibility – but only those two options will enable the cutting of red tape, the removal of tariffs and the easing of restrictions on the movement of workers that British business badly needs.
No doubt, Starmer would be allowed to tweak some export rules, as outlined by Barnier. He could take Britain back into the Erasmus+ scheme and perhaps reinstate some pre-Brexit security co-operation with Europe. But this would rightly be seen as small beer by businesses and voters. It would not move the dial on growth or productivity.
As Barnier has made clear, if Starmer wants to make real progress and bring real change to Britain, the only way is rejoin.