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Robert Peston

Is Starmer trying to have his Brexit cake and eat it?

The Labour leader's plan looks remarkably similar to Boris's

Is Starmer trying to have his Brexit cake and eat it?
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There are three big questions about Sir Keir Starmer's 'five point plan to make Brexit work'. First is whether it makes sense economically: will it help return the UK to growth? Second, will it impress the EU, and is there any chance that what Starmer wants will be agreed by EU leaders? Finally, does it make sense politically, will it reinforce support for the Labour party?

In an interview this afternoon, I probed Starmer on all this, and didn't emerge much wiser. You can watch the whole (short) interview here:

On whether it makes economic sense, I pointed out that many economists would say that the economic price to the UK of being outside the EU stems mainly from the increased costs of trading with the EU that were imposed when the UK left the EU's single market and customs union. The heart of Starmer's plan, however, is that the UK must not rejoin the customs union and single market. This is largely because it would reopen all those emotional arguments about whether the UK should subjugate its product standards and service standards to those of the EU. When I asked Starmer whether a single distinguished economist had backed his plan, he deflected and did not answer.

But Starmer is a cakeist, not wholly unredolent of Johnson of the 2019 vintage. Starmer wants reduced friction in trade with the EU and also in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while preserving the maximum amount of freedom to set UK product standards. He wants fewer border checks – to end the crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol, the Northern Ireland provisions of Johnson's Brexit deal, and also help GB exporters – by promising that the UK's product, foods and veterinary standards will not fall below where they are today.

Johnson and his colleagues have voiced similar ambitions, and it hasn't got them very far – because what bothers the EU is not whether UK goods and foods are dodgy now, but how that will be verified over the weeks, months and years ahead, and whether the UK will promise to continue to match changing EU standards in the future. 

And like Johnson, Starmer does not want to commit to following EU rules in the future, because that offends Brexit supporters as undermining UK autonomy and sovereignty. So it is not clear that the EU would agree to what Starmer wants. In the end, therefore, Starmer's plan is only credible if you believe EU leaders will be more flexible when negotiating with Starmer simply because he is not their bete noire Boris Johnson.

Starmer told me that's what he believes, but his ad hominem argument may be a triumph of hope over Brussels realism. Finally, Starmer's five point plan – which reads like the fruits of focus groups with disillusioned Brexiter Labour voters, rather than a manifesto with deep philosophical foundations – may well help Labour to win back seats on the Brexit-supporting areas of the midlands and north, the erstwhile Red Wall. But opinion polls show that a growing number of those who voted for Brexit think they made an error. I asked Starmer why he was abandoning and potentially alienating those who are no longer Brexiters. His response was a classic of deflection. In a nutshell, Labour's new Brexit policy is at its heart similar to Johnson's. It's Starmer's recognition that the hard Brexiters have definitively won the argument. It is only more credible than Johnson's approach to Brexit if you believe the EU is more likely to give the UK what it wants and needs in the coming years of negotiations if Johnson's nuclear option of breaching the Brexit treaty and international law is neither wielded or held in reserve

Written byRobert Peston

Robert Peston is Political Editor of ITV News and host of the weekly political discussion show Peston. His articles originally appeared on his ITV News blog.

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