Keir Starmer has dropped his pledge to reintroduce free movement with the EU if Labour wins the next election.
The Labour leader said it was “not being straight with the British public to say we can come into office in 2024” and fundamentally renegotiate the relationship with the EU.
During his party’s leadership election Sir Keir pledged to his supporters that he would “defend free movement as we leave the EU” and said he would reintroduce the policy if elected.
But asked on Sunday whether he would stand by the commitment, Sir Keir told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I don’t think there’s an argument for reopening those aspects of the treaty.
“We have a treaty, it’s a thin treaty, it’s not what was promised. But I’m very conscious of the fact that everything I’m doing, everything the Labour Party is doing is focused on winning an election in 2024.
“If we win that election and a Labour government comes in, we will inherit that treaty and the British people will expect us to make it work, and the EU27 will expect us to make it work.”
The opposition leader said that “the last thing anybody wants including the EU is to start again from scratch with this treaty”.
Asked why he had made the pledge during the leadership campaign if he thought it was unrealistic to implement, Sir Keir said: “We’ve negotiated a treaty, that now is the basis of our relationship with the EU. We didn’t know what that was until we saw what it was before Christmas.”
However, the government has consistently ruled out including free movement in the future relationship with the EU since 2017, prior to the last-but-one general election. The commitment was first made when Theresa May was prime minister.
Sir Keir added: “I don’t think there’s a case for rejoining the EU, I’ve said that before. But pretending to the British public that somehow after four years of negotiation that the treaty that’s just being secured is going to be up for grabs, that is not going to be realistic.”
Free movement ended on 1 January as the UK left the Brexit transition period, along with the EU single market and customs union.
Under the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, British citizens already living in EU countries when the transition ended have limited rights within their country of residence – but not full free movement rights.
EU citizens living in the UK have had to apply for “settled status” under the government’s EU settlement scheme.