“No constructive amibiguity,” declares the headline on Keir Starmer’s Observer article today. The Shadow Brexit Secretary takes on a somewhat condescending tone as he lays into his opposite number in the body of the piece:
‘Constructive ambiguity – David Davis’s description of the government’s approach – can only take you so far. This has been underlined by the bland and noncommittal policy papers the government has published in the last two weeks.’
No ambiguity – constructive or otherwise – there. This is a clear renunciation by the Opposition of being bland or noncommittal. Whatever Labour is about to say, it’s going to be absolutely non-ambiguous. Is that right?
‘I want to be absolutely clear about the type of transitional deal Labour would seek to negotiate. No “constructive ambiguity”. No mixed messages. A credible solution to one of the most important issues facing Britain’s exit from the EU.’
Ok. Message received, Sir Keir. Not ambiguous. No mixed messages.
‘Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU. That means we would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market during this period. It means we would abide by the common rules of both.’
Er, really? “Abide by the common rules of both”? Those “common rules” that include free movement of people – which page 28 of the Labour manifesto ruled out, saying: “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.” That seems to be one of those “mixed messages” that we were promised wouldn’t sneak in to this article.
Unless, perhaps, he’s redefining “when we leave the European Union” to mean the end of transition, not the normal definition of March 2019?
‘…it provides maximum certainty for businesses and allays concerns that there will be delays or disruptions to trade when we leave the EU in March 2019.’
Nope – just a mixed message, then. How about that war on ambiguity?
‘…a transitional period under Labour will be as short as possible, but as long as is necessary. It cannot become a kind of never-ending purgatory. That would simply create its own uncertainty and ambiguity.’
My first is in cupboard, but not in cowslip. Is he the Shadow Brexit Secretary or the Sphinx, riddling away? Finally, at last, we know Starmer’s unambiguous transitional period will be “as short as possible, but as long as is necessary”. Which is good, because everyone else was obviously planning one shorter than is possible, and longer than necessary, right?
‘Instead, transitional arrangements must be a bridge to a strong and lasting new relationship with the EU – not as members, as partners. That new progressive partnership should be based on our common values and shared history. It must extend far beyond trade and security to include education, science, technology, medicine and culture. It must be based on a deal that, as Labour made clear in our manifesto, retains the benefits of the customs union and the single market.’
So here we are, back to where Labour were yesterday. They supposedly accept Brexit – even as Chuka Umunna and others use this ‘new’ position to flirt with those who want to stop it, arguing an extended transition is really a route to stop it entirely. They know there’ll be a transition period, like the Government. They want a post-Brexit deal, just like everyone else. The want this deal to ‘extend far beyond trade and security to include education, science, technology, medicine and culture’, which is also the Government’s position.
The problem, though, is as it was before Sir Keir boldly slew ambiguity. Labour declares that it wants a deal that ‘retains the benefits of the customs union and the single market’. They won’t say exactly what should be counted within those benefits, but their dance of the seven veils implies that they mean all the trade and so on, but not the free movement. Except that’s one of the ‘four freedoms’ which the EU believes are indivisible – Cameron tried to get out of it, and they said no. They’ve continued to insist on that position ever since. How does Starmer propose to achieve what literally everybody, including Brussels, says can’t be done?
‘How that is ultimately achieved is secondary to the outcome.’
Oh. Seriously? I want it! You can’t, it doesn’t exist. That doesn’t matter, I want it!
There’s a slight hint at what Starmer personally wants but can’t seem to get his party to agree to earlier in the piece:
‘…the need for more effective management of migration, which Labour recognise must be addressed in the final deal.’
Far be it from me to suggest that a career lawyer might at times try to use technicality and verbiage to obscure his true meaning, but doesn’t this seem to be a peculiarly clunky phrase, when the words ‘ending free movement’ would be both more clear and more popular? Why would he tiptoe around that phrase – committed to, after all, in Labour’s own manifesto? Might it be that he is still, desperately, trying to retain full Single Market membership – with all the loss of border control and democratic control that involves – after all?
As Starmer wrote, ‘Constructive ambiguity…can only take you so far.’ Having studied it carefully, he’s kept the ambiguity, but decided to stop being constructive.