Jeremy Corbyn is determined to resist pressure to spell out in more detail what Brexit settlement Labour would support, despite a series of comments in recent days suggesting the party is edging closer to advocating continued single market membership.
The shadow cabinet will discuss Brexit at its weekly meeting on Tuesday, the first since Theresa May clinched the agreement of European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, to move on to the second phase of the negotiations.
Several frontbenchers, including the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have appeared to signal a shift towards arguing for the closest possible future relationship with the EU.
Launching a report on rebalancing public investment, McDonnell said the UK could remain part of a “reformed single market” and stressed that Labour must keep “all the options on the table”.
On Sunday, Starmer said Labour could accept “easy movement” of EU citizens in exchange for continued tariff-free trade and would be willing to accept “alignment” of regulations, rather than the “divergence” sought by Tory Brexiters.
Starmer has doubts about how long Labour can stick to the line that it would like a status quo transition deal followed by a “jobs first Brexit”, as the public debate turns to the nature of the final deal.
Labour sources said Corbyn and his closest allies were keen to avoid placating ardent remain voters at the expense of Brexit backers in core Labour seats. They know that they will eventually have to give a verdict on whatever trade deal is reached with the EU27 next year, but they fear too much detail now could be a hostage to fortune.
The shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, said he had concerns about a so-called “Canada plus” deal advocated by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, in particular the disputes resolution mechanism that allows corporations to challenge governments.
But Corbyn’s team believe Labour’s general election strategy of appealing to both leavers and remainers worked well and that spelling out a more specific position now would risk alienating key groups.
Some shadow frontbenchers would like more clarity now. One told the Guardian that the time was right for the party to set out its stall on a future trade deal. “What the move in the talks exposed is, it’s the time for Labour to talk about how you get the benefits of the single market. It’s now about the model of the economy you have.”
Some backbenchers are uncomfortable with the party’s stance, too. Alison McGovern, the MP for Wirral South and a founder of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, argued the party could win over more voters by being stronger advocates for a soft Brexit.
She said: “We have seen more support for Labour, as the Tories have fallen under the spell of Nigel Farage and the hard Brexiteers. Protecting jobs, rights and fighting austerity is Labour’s mission and it’s best achieved by staying in the single market and the customs union. I think we get a lot of support for saying so.”
The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, who will address Labour’s leadership team on Brexit on Wednesday, has been another advocate of continued close alignment with the EU’s social market model. She said: “Labour is absolutely right to keep all options on the table. Workers’ rights and jobs must come first.”
But Corbyn and McDonnell have long expressed reservations about key aspects of the single market, including rules on state aid and procurement, arguing during last year’s referendum campaign for “remain and reform”.
Theresa May repeatedly ribbed Jeremy Corbyn about what she claimed was the ambiguity of Labour’s position in the House of Commons on Monday, as she reported back to MPs about her agreement with Juncker.
The prime minister said: “I set out our objectives for the Brexit negotiations very clearly in my Lancaster House speech, and I set them out further and in some more detail in the speech I gave in Florence. Meanwhile, the Labour party has had 12 different Brexit plans. In fact, the right hon gentleman has had so many Brexit plans he cannot even reach alignment with himself.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, even suggested the prime minister should ask the Labour leader to join her negotiating team since they agreed about leaving the single market and the customs union. But Corbyn said the first phase of Brexit talks had been characterised by “posturing, delays and disarray”.
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