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Britain's Place in the World

Part of Speaker’s Statement – in the House of Commons at 3:13 pm on 15th October 2019.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 3:13 pm, 15th October 2019

I do agree. I cannot help feeling that in 2015 we had a Prime Minister who promised a referendum we did not need in order to try to hold his party together, then we had a Prime Minister who would not reach for consensus because she was calculating the numbers on her own side instead of the numbers across the House and now we have a Prime Minister with an absurd do-or-die pledge, which is counter-intuitive and not putting the interests of our country first.

Let me just make this broader point: our central concern in all of this has been about the extent to which any deal will protect the economy, jobs, rights and security, not about the backstop and not the border situation in Northern Ireland, which is obviously the intense focus of the discussions going on at the moment. That is why I rejected the last Prime Minister’s deal, and it looks as though any deal the current Prime Minister manages to secure—if he does—will be worse on both the backstop and on the wider question.

On the question of the border in Northern Ireland, a summary of proposals was presented to the House on 2 October, but they were not promising, because from that summary it looks as though the Government are going back on the commitments that they made in the 2017 joint report, and their proposals would unavoidably mean physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland. The proposals lack any credible mechanism to ensure the consent of all communities in Northern Ireland, which is a central tenet of the Good Friday agreement. Frankly, it was wrong to go down the route of a veto in Northern Ireland in relation to the Good Friday agreement, which absolutely depends on the consent of both communities for anything that happens under that agreement. If the proposals have changed significantly, I would ask the Secretary of State to update the House, but we remain cautious and will not support proposals that lead to a hard border in Northern Ireland or undermine the Good Friday agreement.

On the wider issue of the protection of the economy, jobs, rights and security, the Prime Minister’s current proposals on changes to the level playing field arrangements tell their own story. The seven-page explanatory memorandum that the Prime Minister put before the House says:

“There is…no need for the extensive level playing field arrangements envisaged in the previous Protocol.”

He has made no secret of the fact that he wants to step off the level playing field arrangements. I remind the House why those arrangements were previously included and are so important: they ensure that the UK cannot deregulate or undercut EU rights and standards. They were always minimum protections. We would have liked them to have been written into the withdrawal agreement. It is extraordinary and deeply significant that the Government have now decided to strip away even these basic protections.

The bigger point—this is not a technical point about what is in or out of this particular deal—is that it sets us on a course for a distant relationship with the EU and gives the green light to deregulation and to diverge. That is what the Prime Minister has said is his intention: to diverge is the point of Brexit. It is really important that we make it clear that that kind of deal—one that rips up the level playing field for those at work, for the environment and for consumers—could never be supported by Labour and could never be supported by the trade union movement. If the Prime Minister brings back a deal along those lines, he should have the confidence to put it back to the people in a confirmatory referendum, because such a deal would have profound consequences.

The concern is about not just the technicalities of the level playing field—although it is a technical question—but the political ramifications. Once we have decided to diverge from EU rules and regulations, we start down a road to deregulation, and it is obvious where that leads. The focus on trade and on our rights and regulations will move away from the EU—