David Lammy’s remarks in Paul Waugh’s report and podcast in the i newspaper on Labour and Brexit appear to change the landscape and break with Labour positions on Brexit previously dictated by Starmer, in a few simple and important ways.
There is no more talk about making Brexit work, and happily no more intelligence-insulting talk about there being no case for any future end to Brexit.
Lammy talks explicitly about the conditions under which a future Rejoin could be possible, and posits as the key condition that there must be bipartisan support across the major parties: the Conservatives must ‘come on board’, driven by the pressure of public opinion. This clearly does away with the previous stance that Rejoin is not something Labour is allowed even to think of as a desirable goal.
Lammy recognises the pressure of public opinion for progress on Europe, and recognises also by implication that the same pressure exists for Labour which – we would like to imagine – is less thoroughly insulated from such pressure than the Tories by deep Brexit oligarchic capture and corruption. It is probably not coincidental that Lammy’s new comments coincide with a vigorous recent intervention by the doyen of pollsters Professor Sir John Curtice, reminding Labour that its support base is impatiently, continuingly and increasingly, due to inexorable demographic change, pro-Rejoin, and is likely to be game for a future referendum as the pathway to the goal.
These are the solid and serious points in the interviews. On the debit side, the Starmer red lines against the single market, customs union and freedom of movement – the essential condition for real economic recovery – remain in force, at least this side of the election, and the great fear of the Brexiter media and repeated referendum trauma still remains unchallenged. In the near term, Lammy’s talk about needing bipartisan support for Rejoin conveniently kicks the question into the long grass of the future – and passes the buck to a future Tory opposition. But at least the question is now posed.
Lammy appears to say that he will serve in office for one term only, leaving the initiative for a bolder move for a second-term successor. This may be adroit footwork and buck-passing, even if not particularly courageous. The problem is when we see prudence shading into negligence: it is disturbing to hear Lammy’s colleague, the Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, in an earlier episode of the same podcast, garnering fulsome insider plaudits for Labour’s vows of strict financial and fiscal rectitude under what is likely to be dire inherited economic conditions, with no mention of the continuing economic hemorrhage that is Brexit.
And what next?
As to how Labour would proceed concretely in the short term, Lammy, the justifiably proud first black British alumnus of the Kennedy School of Government, once again intones his mantra of ‘structured dialogue’, the enhanced regime of communication which a new, serious and capable Labour government will establish with Europe. Beyond these sonorities, and ostensibly businesslike but probably counterfactual talk of ‘going through’ the Brexit TCA with EU negotiators ‘line by line’, it is not clear whether Lammy is much better prepared than his Conservative predecessors Davis and Frost.
As a shadow foreign secretary who calls Europe his top priority, two visits to Brussels, three to Germany, and one to Paris in the space of two years does not seem quite the diligent track record that Lammy desires us to suppose. It was a little troubling that Labour’s official photo of the Paris visit showed Starmer, Reeves, and Lammy talking to… each other. Meanwhile, pundits air doubts about whether Labour has properly done its homework, learned from the Tories’ complacent errors, and understood what the EU is willing, and on what conditions, to agree in terms of some limited Brexit palliations, as helpfully itemised in Peter Foster’s excellent book.
Labour pleasantries and mood music are no more a sufficient basis for successful EU negotiation than Tory bluster and ignorance. That said, mood music does no harm and one can hope that Lammy has segued the conversation into a more mellow and less frigidly timid mood. The Labour machine seems to have given it zero amplification and the media echo so far has been distinctly muted. Pro-Europeans should give the significant good parts of Lammy’s words a deserved if qualified welcome, and take fresh courage on their own account.