"Anyone concerned about the direction of the country should be pleased that the official opposition is starting to act like something resembling its name"

Labour hardens position on Brexit ahead of Article 50

Keir Starmer's speech today suggests Labour is significantly hardening its position on Brexit. The shadow Brexit secretary clearly feels the party has done its duty by voting to trigger Article 50 and start negotiations. It now can't be accused of thwarting the public will, so is free to focus and ramp-up its opposition.

He has six tests of the new British-European relationship:

1.      Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?

2.      Does it deliver the "exact same benefits" as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union?

3.      Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?

4.      Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?

5.      Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?

6.      Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?

The most important is test two. It is impossible to imagine any scenario in which it is satisfied. Europe cannot afford to give Britain the same benefits of the single market and customs union while not being a member, or else what would be the point of being a member? Even a comprehensive trade deal – which the government has promised but will be unable to deliver in the two-year time window available – is unlikely to offer that.

But the test is not unfair, because it comes directly from the mouth of David Davis. He set it for himself on January 27th during a Commons exchange with Tory Brexit critic Anna Soubry. It may prove to be a crucial moment in the Brexit story.

"There is a genuine desire, I believe, for people to come together, to support the government, to build a consensus and to get the best deal possible," Soubry told the Commons. "The reality is that we have abandoned the single market and the free movement of people without any debate in this place, never mind a vote."

She was then interrupted by Bernard Jenkin, who said: "We had a referendum."

Soubry replied: "Well, there was one question on the paper: leave or remain. We are leaving the European Union—that is accepted."

Davis then appears to have become over-excited. He has spent so long trading in the easy rhetoric and exaggerated promises of Brexit that he had perhaps forgotten that he might be held to account for what he said.

"My right hon friend the member for Broxtowe talks about things that were not on the ballot paper," he said. "What was on the ballot paper was leaving the European Union. I am afraid that it is very difficult to see how we can leave the European Union and still stay inside the single market, with all the commitments that go with that. What we have come up with—I hope to persuade her that this is a very worthwhile aim—is the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have, but also enable my right hon friend the secretary of state for international trade to go and form trade deals with the rest of the world, which is the real upside of leaving the European Union."

And there it sat. "The exact same benefits".

Blair picked up on this just over a week ago, suggesting it was now a useful test with which to hold the government to account. Starmer appears to have taken the advice.

There is a sort of poetic justice to the idea that leading Brexiters might be trapped by their own misleading rhetoric.

Is Starmer being even-handed? No. Any party which took the decision to leave the single market would be unable to secure the "exact same benefits" as one which decided to stay in it and it is unclear that Labour would have taken a different approach than the Tories have done.

Corbyn doesn't seem to support single market membership, in so far as his views on the issue can even be comprehended. Starmer himself took up the shadow Brexit post clearly wanting to stay in the single market but he soon watered down that position. A series of Labour MPs, especially from northern constituencies, told him they simply could not defend freedom of movement on the doorstep. So Starmer entered into a vague period where it was not clear exactly what he was proposing. This led to a limp uselessness in Labour's approach to the issue. It ended with Corbyn's three-line whip on the Article 50 vote and his tragi-comic insistence that the "real fight starts now". Once it gave up on single market membership, the Labour Brexit position was useless and impenetrable.

It handed the government a blank cheque and now seeks to leverage the advantage it just gave away. It is an absurd spectacle. But there is no point hanging Labour's existing failure on Brexit as an albatross around its neck. Improvements – from the opposition or the government – should be welcomed, not sneered at.  Critics of Brexit will need to be pragmatic and work with people whose records on this issue have been dreadful if they are to maximise their influence over the next two years. Given where we are in the process, Starmer's tests seem the right approach.

It is also encouraging that the tests are so cynical and calculating. For months Starmer's office has acted like it is going up against Disraeli. His team write opinion pieces for the broadsheets and organise speeches, as if that is the whole job of a shadow minister. They act like they're in a Steven Spielberg movie about politics rather than the real thing. When other figures in Labour have gone into his office suggesting that there should also be some rather vigorous political stabbing and dirty-dealing going on, they have been rebuffed. This speech, and that crucial test which sits at its heart, suggests Starmer is becoming less of a lawyer and more of a politician. Or rather that he is starting to combine these roles in a useful way.

That's welcome. He may not have been the knight in shining armour many Brexit critics had hoped for when he was made shadow Brexit secretary. But the crucial period in the Brexit debate now sits before us and anyone concerned about the direction of the country should be pleased that the official opposition is starting to act like something resembling its description.

Corbyn will still be there like a political vacuum at the top of the party. Right-wing Labour MPs will still be demanding that the party turns into a leftie Ukip. But there are signs of clear-sighted strategy in the Brexit shadow secretary's office again and for that we should be cautiously grateful.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book – Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? – is available now from Canbury Press.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.