Labour’s support for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal could become the party’s version of the Liberal Democrats’ broken promise on tuition fees, Keir Starmer has been warned.
MP Rosie Duffield, who in 2017 won the constituency of Canterbury for Labour for the first time ever, said her party’s “apparent co-ownership” of the treaty could weigh on its reputation in the future.
Writing for The Independent, Ms Duffield said the party needed to show an “understanding of the catastrophe of Brexit” and develop “plausible plans for the rebuilding of a strong new relationship with Europe”.
It comes as Sir Keir on Sunday announced he was dropping his pledge to bring back free movement of people with the EU, which he had campaigned on in the Labour leadership campaign.
Instead, the Labour leader will use this week to focus on traditionally conservative themes, pledging to make Labour the “party of the family” and opposing a rise in council tax.
Sir Keir whipped MPs to support Boris Johnson’s free trade agreement, claiming that voting against the treaty would entail support for an even harder no-deal Brexit.
But 37 MPs defied the party leadership, including Ms Duffield, who abstained. The rebels were a mix of MPs from the party’s left wing, like John McDonnell, Dianne Abbott, and Zarah Sultana – plus other MPs from heavily remain-supporting areas such as Stella Creasy, Florence Eshalomi, and Neil Coyle.
The Canterbury MP said it would be “profoundly dishonest” to pretend most of the party’s MPs had not “actively fought to protect the country from a deal that left us far worse off”.
“As a politician, I know that this increasingly feels like unknown territory for Labour and I am starting to fear that our perceived apparent co-ownership of the Brexit deal could unfortunately be our version of the Liberal Democrats sad tuition fees legacy – something we may end up justifying or explaining away for some years to come. I hope I’m wrong,” she wrote.
“But if it is indeed now Labour’s policy to prioritise the reclamation of our red wall once again, where does that leave seats like mine? Some of those seats, desperately frustrated by this inward-looking government, are like the ripe, low-hanging fruit unpicked in the orchards of Kent, there for the taking. And how on Earth do we even begin to regain seats in Scotland, vital gains for electoral success?”
The Liberal Democrats received an electoral drubbing after voting to treble tuition fees in 2010, straight after an election in which they had campaigned to abolish them.
Speaking on Sunday, Sir Keir told the BBC that he did not believe it was “realistic” to renegotiate Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal to include free movement.
The Labour leader said it was “not being straight with the British public to say we can come into office in 2024” and fundamentally change the relationship with the EU.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Asked why he had made the pledge during the leadership campaign to bring back free movement 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.”
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.”
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, Sir Keir called on the government to drop the “absurd” planned rise in council tax to ease the pressure on family budgets.
Local authorities in England will be able to raise council tax by 5 per cent from April to shore up their battered finances, with 3 per cent to top up funding for adult social care.
But Sir Keir said central government should provide extra funding to councils to “give families the security they need”.
“It is absurd that during the deepest recession in 300 years, at the very time millions are worried about the future of their jobs and how they will make ends meet, Boris Johnson and [the chancellor] Rishi Sunak are forcing local government to hike up council tax,” he said.
“The prime minister said he would do ‘whatever is necessary’ to support local authorities in providing vital services – he needs to make good on that promise.”