Labour’s leadership is seeking to head off a new party split over Brexit by arguing any EU-UK trade deal will present Britain with the opportunity to work with Brussels to implement higher standards on workers rights and the environment.
Keir Starmer, Labour leader, wants to back a Brexit deal to try to win back Eurosceptic voters in “red wall” seats, which were lost to the Conservatives in last year’s general election. The alternative, he has repeatedly argued, would be to risk the economic damage of a no-deal Brexit.
That position has prompted a backlash among many pro-EU party members, MPs and shadow ministers who believe the party should abstain on what they say is likely to be a “wafer-thin” free trade agreement. Some junior frontbenchers are privately threatening to resign if and when MPs are whipped to back a deal.
To help justify the decision to back any deal secured by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Sir Keir is planning to seize on a new “freedom” or evolution clause expected to appear in any Brexit trade deal.
The mechanism has emerged as a compromise to EU demands for the UK to automatically align with Brussels’ future regulatory standards in areas such as subsidies for companies, environmental protection and labour rights.
A party memo, seen by the Financial Times, says Labour should accept any evolution clause. “It at least sweetens what is a thin FTA by ensuring there is a safety net of some sort to prevent radical deregulation from the UK government,” it says. “It crucially provides a platform for a future Labour government to build on to increase standards and rights across the board.”
It goes on to say: “If a future Labour government is successful in working with EU partners to improve standards and raise minimum standards at EU level, we can apply this in the UK. These new standards . . . would make it much harder for a future Conservative government to slash those standards without facing repercussions.”
The move raises the prospect of pro-EU Labour MPs joining pro-Brexit Tory backbenchers in supporting the evolution clause. Many Conservatives see the mechanism as a route to regulatory independence from Brussels after Brexit.
The UK’s Brexit negotiating team, led by David Frost, has now accepted the principle of having such a mechanism if there are safeguards to prevent the EU unilaterally punishing UK business with lightning tariffs.
Recent talks have focused on working out the role of independent arbitration and specific remedies. Hopes of a deal over the weekend remain high despite both sides insisting that there are still gaps to bridge on the key question of EU fishing rights in UK waters.
One Labour figure, who said the party “clearly” wanted a Brexit deal given the party’s long-term opposition to no deal, said the evolution clause would continue to give the UK influence over rights and protections.
“A proactive future Labour government could, in fact, continue to work with EU partners while outside the bloc to work towards improving minimum standards across the board from workers standards, environmental regulation and regulation on consumer rights,” the party figure said.
But many Europhile Labour MPs still want to abstain rather than take responsibility for a weak Brexit deal.
Tom Baldwin, former head of communications for Labour and a senior official in the pro-EU People’s Vote campaign, said: “In these circumstances, it seems bizarre for the Labour party — whose voters, as well as members, overwhelmingly wanted to stay in the EU — to block itself off from criticising a Boris Johnson Brexit deal.”
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