LONDON (Reuters) - A shift in the main British opposition party’s stance on Brexit is intended to increase pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May as she struggles to unite her own party and hold on to power after an election setback.
But the move announced by the Labour Party on Saturday, the eve of the latest talks with the European Union, is also a gamble that could backfire by deepening divisions over Brexit among the party faithful.
In what appears a tactical move rather a change of policy, Labour said it would keep Britain in the European single market and customs union for a transitional period after Brexit, offering an alternative to the Conservative government’s line.
The decision was taken by a small circle including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and aims to press home EU criticism of Britain’s negotiating position. It surprised and puzzled many in Labour’s ranks - both Brexit supporters and pro-EU lawmakers.
“It was completely out of the blue,” said Brendan Chilton, general secretary of Labour Leave, a pro-Brexit group.
Chilton told Reuters he feared millions of voters who backed Labour in an election in June because of its “clear” Brexit stance might leave the party at the next election, not due until 2022, especially those in the north of England.
“I wouldn’t say it is a betrayal, they haven’t said that we’re staying in the European Union,” he said. “But I don’t think this weekend has done the Labour Party any favours.”
Since last year’s referendum when Britain voted 52 percent in favour of leaving the bloc, Labour has said it will respect the outcome and its leaders have repeatedly said that if they were in government, they would take the country out of the bloc’s lucrative single market to control immigration better.
But on Saturday, its Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, said that “the glacial pace of progress in the first two rounds of talks have helped puncture this illusion” that a new relationship with the EU could be delivered within two years.
“So I want to be absolutely clear about the type of transitional deal Labour would seek to negotiate,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper.
“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.”
The move was intended to puncture the relentlessly upbeat reports from May’s government on the state of play in the Brexit talks by showing an alternative way to save a negotiation EU officials say is making little progress, Labour sources said.
It also raised hopes among some who voted “remain” in last year’s referendum on EU membership that there would be a challenge in parliament to what they say is the prime minister’s pursuit of a hard break with the EU which could end in no deal.
Starmer described the move on Twitter as one that shows that “Labour now has a strong and united purpose in fighting hard Brexit”, but most of his colleagues were taken by surprise.
Agreed by the tight circle of Labour’s Brexit committee, including Starmer, Corbyn and five others in the leader’s top team, it overshadowed plans by two pro-EU lawmakers to launch a new campaign to keep Britain in the single market for good.
Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern had hoped to capitalise on growing public concern about the economic impact of Brexit when they began their campaign on Saturday, just hours before Starmer’s statement, which Alexander said did not go far enough.
“We can’t just delay the economic cliff edge for a few years and think everything will be OK,” Alexander told Reuters.
“The campaign ... is about the long-term economic interests of the country - what’s right for jobs, for public finances and how we stop a race to the bottom on workers rights, consumer rights and corporation tax levels.”
Like the Conservatives and much of the country, Labour is split over Brexit, and by offering this kind of proposal has opened the way for different factions to put forward their views of how Britain should leave the EU.
The Conservative Party, which won the June election but squandered its parliamentary majority in a poll May did not have to call, dismissed the move, saying the change was the latest in a series of differing positions by Labour over the EU.
“And as we have also seen, not a position that is welcomed by all members of the Labour party,” May told reporters during a visit to Japan.
But with May’s majority propped up by a small Northern Irish Party, it would only take a rebellion by just a few pro-EU Conservatives to defeat the government’s repeal bill to sever political, financial and legal ties with the EU in parliament.
“Now Labour agrees on keeping Single Market at least for transition, we’ll have to vote against #euwithdrawalbill which begins second reading next week,” Chris Leslie, an EU campaigner and Labour lawmaker, said on Twitter.
A source close to Corbyn said killing off the bill was not the aim of the party leadership and some pro-EU lawmakers in constituencies where voters supported leaving the bloc might find it difficult to scrap laws that are central to Brexit.
For now, many Labour lawmakers are asking: if this is the plan for a transitional phase, what happens next?
“I think the fact that Keir is being so vocal about the need for the UK to stay in the Single Market and a Customs Union for a transitional period after Brexit is a good thing but it does beg the question, what then?” Alexander said.
“Keir’s announcement is good as far as it goes but it’s not the whole answer.”
additional reporting by William James in Kyoto, Japan; editing by Giles Elgood