Plenty of Labour figures who voted Remain are now urging the government to complete a trade agreement with the European Union before the end of the transition period. ‘There isn’t a choice between a fantasy deal and no deal,’ says Liam Byrne. ‘It’s this deal versus no deal, and we will not have a manufacturing industry left unless there is a deal.’ Although there is still a battle within the shadow cabinet on what to do should a UK-EU trade agreement come to parliament, the consensus seems to be that Keir Starmer would whip the party to vote for Johnson’s deal.
This marks a big shift in Labour's Brexit strategy for two reasons – and might well come back to those Labour remainers cheering on Boris to do a deal.
Firstly, the deal they are pinning their hopes on will be considerably thinner and represent a much harsher Brexit than anything Theresa May would have come up with – and, in many cases, they rejected what she wanted out of hand. Secondly, a no-deal Brexit offers remainers within Labour and elsewhere way more hope of at least re-joining the single market in the near future, whereas a trade deal with the EU, however bad, shuts that option down completely.
Those within Labour saying we must get a deal will argue at this point that the rejection of the Theresa May plan was a matter of ‘that was then, this is now’; two years ago, it was realistic to expect that Brexit could have been stopped altogether, whereas that battle has now been lost. As Liam Byrne argues, now any deal will be better than no deal, and so we must think of the good of the nation. People’s jobs are at stake here; we have to back whatever option causes the least damage. But is that right? I'm not convinced.
The deal that Boris Johnson will be able to agree at this point will be so thin that it won’t be much better than no deal – and might even be worse in some respects. All of the things that make no deal such a bad outcome – customs barriers leading to port pileups and goods shortages, the crisis to the UK manufacturing sector caused by being out of both the single market and the customs union – are likely to happen even if Boris gets a deal over the line in the next few days. Due to an incompetent negotiating strategy, Johnson has led us to the brink of a disaster; that it is the Labour party who are covering up for him on this out of some deep no deal-phobia is truly remarkable.
Instead Labour MPs should remember that a no-deal situation actually offers some possibility of the UK re-joining the single market sometime in the near future. If Boris can't do a deal, and Britain leaves without one, Keir Starmer would be well placed to pitch himself as the candidate who can do a deal with the EU, particularly if the disruption felt by the British public is acute. An end to the fallout from a no-deal could be one of the Labour party's big selling points come the next general election.
But if a deal is struck between the UK and the EU in the coming days, it will be very hard to unpick – and make life harder for Starmer. It's true that the hope among some remainers that Britain might one day rejoin the EU is a pipe dream right now. Yet a deal will almost certainly kill off any chance at all of this happening.
Instead Keir Starmer is pushing as hard as possible for a Brexit deal to be completed that not only does he seem to think will be bad for the country, but the completion of which will be damaging to his political project. Labour remainers will say this is being done to save the country. But what about the fallout from a bad Brexit deal, which offers no room for escape?
If this was a choice between something like May’s Brexit plan and no deal, I would understand getting behind a deal at this point. That’s not what the choice is, however. Those within the Labour party who are pushing for a deal should stop trying to cover for Boris Johnson’s mistakes.