Keir Starmer will shortly be delivering a speech in Belfast on the Northern Ireland protocol, in which he will demand the government “put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult” and act to resolve the ongoing dispute over the post-Brexit trade agreement. Speaking at Queen’s University Belfast, the Labour leader is expected to say: “The time for action on the protocol is now. The time to stand up to the ERG is now.” He will argue that there is a “small window of opportunity before April” – the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement – in which to “fix minds, get the country and its political process moving forward again [and] deliver for the people of Northern Ireland”.
Starmer will declare that the “spirit of 1998, on both islands, is not one of political partisanship”, adding: “So I say to the Prime Minister, if there is a deal to do in the coming weeks – do it. Whatever political cover you need, whatever mechanism in Westminster you require, if it delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland, we will support you.” Though offering his party’s backing to resolve the impasse over the protocol, Starmer is also expected to criticise the Tories’ handling of negotiations, accusing ministers of seeing “our friends in Dublin” as “adversaries” and urging Rishi Sunak to “recognise past mistakes”.
Starmer is not the only prominent Labour politician talking about Brexit this week. In a speech in London on Thursday evening, Sadiq Khan again voiced his opposition to the UK’s current relationship with the EU, declaring that he “simply can’t keep quiet about the immense damage Brexit is doing” and calling for a “pragmatic debate” about rejoining the single market and customs union. “After two years of denial and avoidance, we must now confront the hard truth: Brexit isn’t working,” the London mayor told attendees, adding: “We need greater alignment with our European neighbours – a shift from this extreme, hard Brexit we have now to a workable version that serves our economy and people.”
Khan’s speech is a clear deviation from Labour’s policy on Brexit, highlighting the tensions that remain within the party on this issue. In an address to the Centre for European Research think tank last July, Starmer set out the party’s five-point plan to “make Brexit work”. He said: “Under Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union.” The Labour leader argued: “Nothing about revisiting those rows will help stimulate growth or bring down food prices or help British business thrive in the modern world.”
Khan has strongly criticised Brexit in the past, describing it as the “biggest piece of self-inflicted harm ever done to a country”. In June last year, he confirmed that he supported the UK rejoining the single market, though he acknowledged: “I don’t speak for the national Labour Party.” In his new year speech last week, Starmer attempted to seize the initiative on Brexit, co-opting the rhetoric of the Leave campaign with his proposal of a ‘take back control’ bill, which would see new powers devolved to local communities. But Khan’s intervention demonstrates that influential voices within Labour remain unconvinced by the party’s stance on the EU, creating something of a headache for the Labour leader as he continues to try to distance himself from his Remainer reputation.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.