This article was first published on ConservativeHome.
Earlier in the election campaign, the media had little time to scrutinise the Labour manifesto before the Conservatives produced their offering. In the few days after the manifesto launch, Labour was widely criticised for its questionable claim to have “fully costed” all of its extra spending projects. The media has had plenty to play with – unrealistic estimates of the cost of their commitments, waving away £25 billion per year in extra deficit spending as ‘investment’, and failure to mention how much their renationalisation programme would add to the national debt.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, for Jeremy Corbyn and his team – attention switched to the Tories before Labour’s latest attempt at forming a policy on Brexit could be fully scrutinised. Eurosceptics, who have been waiting almost a year for the Labour Party to fully commit to Brexit, would be disappointed if they were to read the manifesto.
For the last year, Labour have floundered between various different ‘soft Brexit’ positions. They have been aiming to bridge the gulf in opinion between their pro-Brexit working-class support base and their staunchly pro-EU leadership. The party’s Brexit plan, as detailed in their manifesto, follows the same pattern. The manifesto includes a range of ‘soft Brexit’ pledges, most of which would be serious missteps in the negotiations.
Ruling out a ‘no deal’ Brexit, for instance, would lead Corbyn into the same trap which befell David Cameron during so-called ‘renegotiations’ before the referendum. If Corbyn cannot indicate that he would walk away, what possible motivation would the EU have to offer him a good deal? They could simply impose the most one-sided deal imaginable on Great Britain.
Labour’s attempt to deal with this obvious flaw is, in itself, obviously flawed. In the event of no good deal being reached, they insist they would agree ‘transitional’ arrangements which would continue until the EU decided to give Corbyn an acceptable deal. But why would the EU ever decide to do such a thing? Why, for that matter, would they be inclined to offer us a ‘transitional’ deal which isn’t incredibly one-sided? After all, Corbyn would be going into the negotiations saying he would not walk away from their ‘transitional’ offer.
Amidst all this, Labour’s manifesto commitment to ending free movement – trumpeted as a major internal victory for Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary – is worthless. It is even questionable whether the wording of the manifesto actually rules out remaining inside the EU after all.
The pledge to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in Britain would be a further mis-step – even leaving aside the question of exactly which rights these would be. They also offer no indication of when an EU national would have to have arrived here to be eligible for these rights. A unilateral decision would simply allow the EU to treat British citizens living in EU Member States as bargaining chips. Corbyn could end up having to make serious concessions simply to ensure our expats are allowed to remain in, say, France or Spain.
The manifesto also repeats Labour’s bizarre litmus test for an EU deal, insisting on “retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union”. Which benefits? Which aspects of the Single Market and Customs Union do they consider to be “benefits” and which to be drawbacks? It quickly becomes apparent Labour’s policy is to achieve the impossible. They plan to do the very sort of cherry-picking the EU ruled out virtually the moment the results of the EU referendum were announced.
The hallmarks of the Single Market are the ‘four freedoms’ – free movement of goods, services, capital and people. In the first three cases, harmonised regulations – imposed at EU level and enforced by EU courts – reduce practical barriers to trade. This is usually cited as the Single Market’s main benefit by its supporters. However, if Labour think they can retain those three freedoms while ditching free movement of people, they are sorely mistaken. The EU has (rightly) explicitly ruled out this sort of cherry-picking.
The same goes for the Customs Union. Its main benefit – according to its supporters – is the ability to trade between EU Member States, without the hassle of ‘rules of origin’ checks. These checks are specifically designed to ensure products really come from the stated country, and are not being rebadged in order to avoid higher tariffs. But Labour cannot expect to take control of our trade policy while avoiding at least some system of checks – the only reason the EU can dispense with checks is because all EU Member States have to set the same tariffs and are banned from negotiating their own free trade agreements.
Brexiteers voted for Britain to take control of its laws, borders, and trade policy – and this is exactly what the Conservative manifesto promises. The great British public voted to leave the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union because we believe the costs of those institutions, when compared to a comprehensive free trade agreement, vastly outweigh the benefits.
Perhaps because the current Labour Party is now so dominated by ardent Remainers, Labour cannot see this. They simply see Brexit talks as a mitigating process – where they can try to cling on to as many of the EU’s so-called ‘benefits’ as possible – leading them into these totally impossible positions.
The Labour Party has just about a week to change the way they view Brexit. Their manifesto displays a lack of ambition and a lack of realism. If they want to get Brexiteer votes, they must drop these unworkable proposals, take a more assertive stance and pledge to Get Britain Out on the right terms – out of the Single Market and out of the Customs Union, with control over our laws, borders, money and trade policy. Otherwise, now UKIP seems to have collapsed (at least for the moment) the Conservatives will have a massive open goal on June 8th, with the potential to gain dozens of Brexit-supporting Labour seats.