Sir Keir Starmer walks Brexit tightrope as Labour conference tensions mount

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer addresses the Labour Party annual conference at the Brighto

Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer addresses the Labour Party annual conference at the Brighton Centre, Brighton. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Dennis Skinner all enjoyed rapturous applause at Labour Party conference – Sir Keir Starmer not so much.

Sir Keir Starmer.

Sir Keir Starmer. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Some polls suggest that almost 70pc of Labour's members want Britain to stay in the single market but in Brighton you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Speaking after his speech Sir Keir was upbeat saying that the government had been forced to change its position on a transitional arrangement after the March 2019 Brexit deadline because of Labour pressure.

But he will have noted quite clearly that much like the Labour leadership, the delegates at this conference are – at best – lukewarm on any attempts to push for Britain to stay in the single market.

It is Jeremy Corbyn-supporting pressure group Momentum that has seized this gathering. It is an email sent by the group to delegates urging them to stop a bid for a vote on Labour backing staying in the single market and retaining freedom of movement that has re-ignited some ugly divisions. The party was hoping for a united conference after years of infighting,

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer in Brighton.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer in Brighton. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

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Quizzed by this newspaper about whether Momentum were making his job more difficult Sir Keir refused to be drawn saying only that there was a 'range of views' in the party and across the country on Brexit. He added that the shadow cabinet had enjoyed 'plenty of discussions on Brexit' and came up with the policy together.

But at a fringe event he took an apparent swipe at Mr Corbyn who has been accused of a lacklustre showing while campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU saying he would have liked 'more out there for the Labour Party'.

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He said: 'I don't think the campaign was very good for a whole bunch of reasons. I don't think we should have allowed David Cameron and George Osborne to front it, we really shouldn't have allowed them to front it.

'I was out there for the Labour Party, and I would have liked more out there for the Labour Party.'

Sir Keir finds himself in a very tight spot. His role is undoubtedly one of the most important on the opposition front bench. Brexit is a deal Britain has to get right and the scrutiny of the Conservatives by Sir Keir and his team could prove vital.

But, as the power within Labour shifts to the left and into the hands of Mr Corbyn and his backers Momentum, the issue is being diluted within the party.

The left has always been suspicious of the European Union. But any declaration now of support for a so-called hard Brexit would undoubtedly upset a great swathe of the membership. Instead leadership has decided to walk a tightrope in a bid to keep everyone happy – and Sir Keir has to be the front man.

In his speech he said Labour would negotiate a deal 'that retains the benefits of the customs union and the single market'.

'Options for achieving that end should not be swept off the table,' he added. 'Subject of course to negotiations, remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour.

'We are also flexible as to whether the benefits of the single market are best retained by negotiating a new single market relationship, or by working up from a bespoke trade deal. The outcome is what matters.

'No fantastical 'blue sky' proposals. A pragmatic approach. Labour are now the grown-ups in the room. We stand ready to take charge of the negotiations. Not acting for narrow political gain, but in the national interest.'

But one Momentum activist watching disagreed: 'We will be better off out of the EU. We cannot achieve proper socialism in Britain in the EU. We should just come out and say it.'

Sir Keir may not have been cheered to the rafters but he is a highly able and skilful politician. And this worries Momentum and the left. Many believe he is the only hope to stop Labour lurching even further to the left and think if he were to become a leadership challenger he would be a threat to a more left-wing candidate.

All that is in the future. Right now in Brighton Labour has managed to make Brexit one of the main talking points of this conference – which is the exact opposite of what Momentum wanted to achieve. Handled better the party could have claimed a victory over the government on transitional periods. Instead everyone is talking about internal rows again.

Brexit could rip the government apart – and perhaps Labour too.

Clive Lewis slams lack of vote

Labour's Norwich South MP and anti-Brexit campaigner Clive Lewis has slammed the decision not to vote on retaining single market access and freedom of movement at party conference.

He said: 'Brexit and immigration are difficult issues and it's understandable that people are nervous about a public debate. But the public debate is upon us whether we like it or not and it's highly disappointing this conference will now not do so.

'We need to be clear as a party that the answer to falling wages, social insecurity and underfunded public services is stronger workers' rights, massive investment and an end to privatisation. Ending free movement answers none of these problems – and would undermine the rights of British and migrant workers alike.

'Ultimately, that kind of clarity can only come from a democratic process inside our party – and members must be trusted to have that debate.'

Labour deputy leader wants football betting sponsorship ban

Football teams including Norwich City could be forced to find new shirt sponsors after Labour called for a ban.

Tom Watson has announced the party would ban betting companies from advertising on shirts saying it should be treated the same way as tobacco.

'Football has to play its part in tackling Britain's hidden epidemic of gambling addiction. Shirt sponsorship sends out a message that football clubs don't take problem gambling among their own fans seriously enough.

'It puts gambling brands in front of fans of all ages, not just at matches but on broadcasts and highlights packages.

'Clubs have a corporate social responsibility to their fans not to promote harmful products. Just as tobacco companies were banned from sponsoring sporting events and putting their logos on branded goods because of the harm smoking can cause, it's right that we recognise the harm problem gambling does and take gambling logos off football shirts.'

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