Former Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer only took over as leader of the opposition from Jeremy Corbyn last month but already finds himself battling to reunite a party torn about by infighting, including its much-criticised position on Brexit. The Labour Party’s stance on the UK’s departure from the Brussels bloc for months went backwards and forwards between a second referendum and an alternative plan to leave the EU altogether, leaving voters utterly bemused. This confusion and frustration only intensified further when at the Labour Party Conference in September, Mr Corbyn said the party would be taking a “neutral” position on Brexit.
Labour was highly influential in stopping former Prime Minister Theresa May getting her Brexit deal through Parliament, and had played a large role in delaying progress under Boris Johnson by joining forces with rebels in a series of House of Commons votes.
But that plan crumbled when Mr Corbyn led Labour to its worst general election result in recent history, handing the Prime Minister a huge 80-seat majority to push his Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament and deliver on his promise to “get Brexit done”.
The post-Brexit trade talks have got off to an uncertain start, with Mr Johnson continuing to insist the transition period will not be extended beyond December 31 – despite the political agenda across EU member states being dominated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Tim Bale, Deputy Director at the UK in a Changing Europe think tank and Politics Professor at the Queen Mary University of London, warned the issue of Remain or Leave has quickly lost significance, and Labour must now be prepared to push Mr Johnson into extending the post-Brexit transition period beyond 2020.
He told Express.co.uk: “Brexit is done. Starmer has signalled very clearly that it’s time to move on.
“Obviously there may be a crunch point later this year when it comes to whether or not we extend the transition period in order to deal with the coronavirus crisis first – and/or what sort of deal we can do with the EU in the longer term.
“But Remain/Leave will matter less and less over time.”
Patrick Sullivan, chief executive of the Parliament Street think tank, agreed Sir Keir must quickly distance Labour from the Remain rhetoric in order to win back voters, and will likely push to extend the transition period.
He told this website: “Labour must ditch its Remain plan to win back voters. Nobody understands this better than Starmer.
“However, do expect a Labour push to extend the transition period in the coming months.
“They will want to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union for as long as possible.”
Alistair Jones, principal politics lecturer at De Montfort University in Leicester, warned the Leave/Remain debate, which has dominated the political agenda since the EU referendum in June 2016, will soon be “redundant”.
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He has urged Sir Keir to get Labour into a position to hold the Prime Minister and his Government to account over decisions being taken during the transition period process, adding he will use his track record of “forensically examining the flaws in the Government’s approach”.
Mr Jones said: “The UK is leaving on 31 December 2020 at the end of the transition period. It will be another three or four years until the next general election so debates around Leave/Remain are redundant.
“What is more important for the Labour Party is to hold the Johnson Government to account for the decisions being taken in the transition period.
“The fact the government has stated there will be no extension, despite the pandemic, highlights the ideological drive to leave the EU rather than considering the future of the UK economy.
“Starmer has a very good track record of forensically examining the flaws in the government’s approach and explaining them to the public.”
Dr Steve McCabe, Associate Professor with the Institute for Design and Economic Acceleration and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University, warned Leave or Remain “is as dead as the proverbial dodo”, adding Sir Keir will be smart enough swerve the debate and find another way to win back voters.
He said: “Starmer was, without a doubt, the most pro-EU shadow minister under Corbyn who, ironically, was much more agnostic of an organisation he has always viewed with suspicion as overtly working in the interests of capitalism he’s despised since joining the party in his teens.
“Starmer will continue to emphasise the importance of cooperation and the need to get a good trade deal.
“However, he will recognise that last December’s election was won by the Conservatives so emphatically due to its simple slogan of getting Brexit “done”; most especially by taking votes in Labour seats. This issue is as dead as the proverbial dodo.
“Starmer will, if he has any sense, approach it with the caution of a firework that has failed to go off. Where Starmer is forced to deal with Brexit, he’s smart enough to nuance his language.”
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