Rachel Reeves set out Labour’s Brexit policy at a LabourList and UK in a Changing Europe event this week in which she said the UK would not be back in the European Union under a Labour government.
“Under a Labour government, we will have a close relationship with the EU but we won’t be back in the EU. I know that is something that is sad and difficult to come to terms with for a lot of us, but I think that is the reality we have to face up to,” she said.
Explaining her view of Brexit before the 2019 election, the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said she “reluctantly” backed a fresh public vote because “it felt like there was no other way out”.
She said: “I felt getting a deal through parliament then putting it to the people was the best way of resolving the stalemate we had reached. I still think that would have been better than the situation we are in now.”
But Reeves, now in charge of Labour’s Brexit policy as Michael Gove’s opposite number, was frank about the new position that the party has taken since Keir Starmer took over the leadership in April.
Asked by a viewer about the possibility of Labour backing a campaign in 2024 to rejoin the EU if polls show a majority in support of the option, the shadow minister for the Cabinet Office rejected the idea.
She said: “I can understand why people are asking those questions, and I do understand that Labour members feel very strongly. I was a big campaigner for Remain, a big supporter of a People’s Vote.
“I wish we weren’t in the situation we are in now. But I think that trying to reopen those debates and those old wounds, I don’t think it will help the country move on and I don’t think it will help the Labour Party move on.
“I don’t see that we’re going to be in a position that in the next election we’re going to be campaigning to go back into the EU… I think we need to accept the result of the referendum and the last election and move on.
“That doesn’t mean accepting the deal that the Conservatives bring back, if they do bring back a deal, and saying that is now the end point and where we will be under a Labour government. Absolutely not.”
The Labour frontbencher added that there would be “huge opportunities for an incoming Labour government to reset that relationship in a way that is consistent with our values but in the national interest as well”.
Reeves used her contributions to the event to warn that “leaving without a deal would be the very worst thing that could happen now”, but also added: “Just any old deal is not the deal that a Labour government would be striving for now.”
The shadow cabinet member agreed with fellow panellist Anand Menon that Boris Johnson’s government would likely secure a deal with the EU, saying: “I think on balance now there is more likely to be a deal than not.”
But she specified that the deal secured by the Tories is “likely to be a very thin, slim deal”, and that for Labour in government “it would only be a building block on what Labour would seek to achieve”.
In response to a viewer who contended that rejoining the European single market and customs union would be important in the Covid recovery, Reeves confirmed that Labour would not back the proposal.
“I don’t accept the premise of the question. I don’t think we have to rejoin the single market and customs union,” she said. “In four years time when the next election will be, businesses would have started doing things differently…
“I would much rather us remain in the EU, but there is no way that the Labour Party or indeed the Liberal Democrats are going into the next election arguing for another referendum and another massive upheaval.”
She summed up the view by saying: “We can have much closer cooperation than what the Conservatives want to achieve through these negotiations, but that can be short of being in a formal customs union or a single market.”
Reeves also disagreed with the suggestion that Labour had been quiet on Brexit in recent months. She said the focus had been tackling coronavirus but added: “I don’t think it’s right to say we have been silent on issues of Brexit.
“Most of all on the internal market bill, where I think Ed Miliband’s opening speech and hopefully my closing speech, in a slightly less eye-catching way, were holding the government to account and showing the dangerous actions of this government”.
The government announced last month that, in a bid to avoid backlogs and traffic jams after the Brexit transition period ends, lorries will be stopped from entering Kent unless they have required paperwork.
Reeves commented: “The idea that you’re going to have to have some sort of passport to get into Kent… I think it is laughable if it wasn’t so serious. We can’t be in a situation where you need passports to travel around the United Kingdom.
“But I think it just speaks to the chaos and incompetence that is going on here, that here we are four years and three Prime Ministers since we voted to leave the European Union, that we’re still not in a position that we’ve properly thought through and had processes in place.”
The event can be watched back in full on YouTube.