Labour MPs have expressed a sense of bewilderment at orders from the party’s high command to remain silent on Brexit issues.
MPs are being asked not to focus on problems caused by Brexit when asking questions in parliament, dealing with the media, or posting on social media, sources in the parliamentary party have said.
Senior party figures were also astonished that Sir Keir Starmer delivered a major speech on how the country should rebuild after the pandemic without once mentioning Brexit.
On Saturday night former cabinet member and Europe minister Peter Hain said Brexit had become the “elephant in the room” for Labour.
Hain told the Observer: “It’s quite understandable that Brexit has not been top of Labour’s agenda, but it’s not sustainable to ignore this elephant in the room hurting British businesses, our vital performing arts sector, our security and our foreign policy reach. The Tories delivered a last-minute mess of a Brexit with damaging consequences, not least to stability on the island of Ireland.”
One senior backbencher said the message from Labour HQ was clear – that there should be virtual “radio silence” on the issue. “The order that is coming out is: ‘Don’t mention the war.’ We are being told that Keir wants to move on and that if we mention the B-word let alone suggest we a need better deal with the EU than Boris Johnson’s we are being unhelpful.”
Several sources said that MP Carolyn Harris, Sir Keir’s parliamentary aide for coordinating with Labour members, had been discouraging interventions on Brexit, saying they would damage the leader.
One member of Sir Keir’s frontbench team said that attempts to “brush the problems under the carpet just because we wrongly voted for Johnson’s deal in December is pretty close to negligence”.
He added that Sir Keir was “terrified” of offending voters in red wall seats in the Midlands and north where pro-Brexit voters deserted Labour at the 2019 election.
Since 1 January Sir keir has not raised Brexit or problems caused by it once at Prime Minister’s Questions, and interventions on the issue from backbenchers have been rare.
Pressure is now growing on Sir Keir to lay out a vision of how he would improve access to the EU single market after it emerged thousands of UK firms that export to the bloc are investing in warehouses and subsidiaries on the continent and laying off UK staff as a result of rising costs and bureaucracy caused by Brexit.
Former transport secretary Andrew Adonis said it was incredible that Sir Keir had chosen not to mention Brexit in his speech. “Keir’s speech on the economic challenges ahead didn’t once mention the words Brexit, trade or Europe. This is unsustainable. It’s like discussing the weather without mentioning the wind and the rain.”
The Green party’s Caroline Lucas, whose party has shown some signs of pushing up in the polls in recent weeks, said: “It beggars belief that in his much-trailed ‘reset’ speech on business and the economy, the leader of the opposition – himself once the most pro-European member of the shadow cabinet – couldn’t even bring himself to mention the B-word once.
“Such radical amnesia may be deemed politically convenient by Starmer, but it represents a shocking abdication of responsibility from the official opposition.”
A Labour source said: “Since January we have consistently and repeatedly highlighted the red tape from Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal that is holding British business back.
“Only last month, Labour called for more customs agents to help businesses cope with more red tape.”