Richard North, 27/08/2017  

The Telegraph remembered to put up the Booker column this week without prompting, apparently having forgotten to post it last week.

With no comments on the post, though, we wonder if this is another part of the deliberate campaign to marginalise Booker and, in particular, to take him out of the Brexit debate. So abhorrent are his views on continued membership of the Single Market via the EEA that editor Alistair Heath has consigned Booker's main story, covering precisely that field, to the second position.

In the new format column (consigned to the back page of the supplement), which only has one headline on the print edition, this means that the casual reader will not easily realise that there is a Brexit story. Crucially, its low profile also means that the column will not show up on the Google listings covering Brexit.

But if Heath can't bear to have arguments on the Single Market rehearsed in his newspaper, it will be interesting to see how he handles the main story in the Observer which has Labour (in the person of Keir Starmer) calling for the UK to remain in the Single Market and a customs union for an extended transitional period before finally committing to a full break with the EU.

This is backed up with an authored column by Starmer who writes that "we need a transitional Brexit deal that provides maximum certainty and stability".

Labour would thus 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 also means, says Starmer, "we would abide by the common rules of both".

At this point, we look with anticipation for the detail of how Labour would intend to go about achieving this miraculous transition and how, in the time left (deducting any time it would need to depose May, have a general election and install a Labour government), it would go about negotiating a customs union treaty with the EU, on top of the lengthy treaty that would be needed to afford the UK full participation in the Single Market.

In this, of course, Labour could go for the Efta/EEA option – saving us the trouble of having to write in the Single Market provisions into a new treaty. But, on this, Starmer is silent. In fact, he is completely silent on any detail as to achieve his miracle.

Telling us that, unlike MinBrex overlord David Davis, he would avoid any "constructive ambiguity", Starmer immediately moves on to indulge in his own version, by missing out the hard bit and extolling the virtues of "remaining inside a customs union and the single market in a transitional phase". We would, he says, "be certain that goods and services could continue to flow between the EU and the UK without tariffs, customs checks or additional red tape".

It is left to political editor Toby Helm to attempt to fill in the gaps, with his own piece. Gallantly, he talks of Davis's attempt "to convey an impression of clarity where little exists", and Starmer's description of the recent position papers as "bland and non-committal". But, for all the verbiage, he fails to mention the huge gap in Starmer's pitch.

Today, writes Helm, marks a highly significant turning point for Labour (and possibly for the country) in its approach to the EU – a move away from the party's previous defensive ambiguity to one of far more positive engagement.

In Starmer's article, signed off by the leadership and all key players in the shadow cabinet (albeit after days of intense argument), Labour has repositioned itself "clearly and decisively" as the party of "soft Brexit". For the first time since the people voted to leave the EU, Helm says, "there is a visible expanse of clear blue water between the 'hard Brexit' Conservative approach and the Labour one".

For that to make any difference, though, Labour must also have a plan to grab the reins of power from the Tories. The battleground, it seems, will be the EU withdrawal bill, which returns to the House of Commons on 7 September for its second reading.

The Bill, if passed in its present form, says Helm, would pave the way for an end to the UK's single market and customs union membership, and terminate the jurisdiction of the ECJ over UK affairs.

Thus, we learn, Labour's next move will be to seek support in the Commons from pro-EU Tory MPs and others for its new position, as it tries to amend the Bill and stop hard Brexit in its tracks. And by that means, "the stage is set for an autumn of extraordinary Brexit battles in Parliament, running in parallel with equally momentous ones in Brussels".

A more relevant battle, however, could be the challenge, which surely must come, as to whether the Government is to give formal notice to leave the EEA. The Government's current position is that it does not need to trigger formal exit procedures as leaving the EU will automatically mean that our EEA membership will lapse.

Few would agree with that stance, though which means that, by 29 March 2018, the Government must give notice – for which purpose it is argued that it will need Parliamentary approval. For Parliament to refuse that approval would lead to an epic battle which could have the effect of keeping us in the Single Market.

As it stands, we are getting no more clarity from Starmer than we are from Davis. This seems more like an attempt to convey the impression of a difference between the two main political parties, when in the real world, we have both committed to forms of Brexit that are unrealistic and provide no serious answers to the question of how we achieve a workable exit.

Then, even if one were to concede that Labour is on the right track, its focus on a transitional deal (and an entirely unnecessary customs union) does not address the pressing need to define the end game.

Elsewhere, we have occasionally drawn attention to the bizarre nature of the a Brexit process that has as its end game a free trade agreement. Taking on board a transitional period where we would stay in the Single Market, we have the absurd proposition of the negotiating team seeking to buy time for a final result which is worse than the interim package.

That alone illustrates the poverty of Labour's new initiative, which is seems more like a platform on which to perpetuate Westminster party politics, with little to offer by way of stable Brexit package. This isn't "soft Brexit" - it's something different from what the Tories are running with. And that's all that matters.

Unwittingly, that much is confirmed by Andrew Rawnsley, also writing in the Observer. He says:
A sniff of power has wafted into Labour nostrils since June, and that mind-concentrating scent has influenced the mood at the top of the party. The shadow cabinet has had to think about what they would face if this minority Conservative government were to collapse and an early election propelled Labour into power to take charge of the Brexit negotiations. In the probably more likely scenario that the election comes later, Labour would obviously hope to reap a dividend at the ballot box if the Tories have delivered a bad Brexit deal or a disastrous no deal.
He calculates that there are sufficient Tory MPs who will agree with the Labour position on the transition to conceive of it assembling a majority in Parliament. Mobilising them, he says, will partly depend on how artful Labour can be about waging this struggle in the Commons.

Success will also be contingent on the struggle within the breasts of these Conservative MPs between their party loyalties and their consciences. That, Rawnsley concludes, "will be the next battle to watch out for".

In effect, Labour has given the political classes and the media something they have desperately wanted – a Westminster dimension to Brexit. Now the pundits can ignore the unfamiliar and vaguely uncomfortable proceedings in Brussels and focus on a real, live biff-bam drama carried out on familiar territory.

Although Michel Barnier and his officials are tired of what they call "intra-UK debate", it looks as if they're about to get more of it. While they're focusing on phase one before moving on to trade, our London parties will be frittering away their time and energy discussing whether we are heading for a "hard" or "soft" Brexit. Despite that, he will ensure we have the former - by default.

To that extent, what Starmer and Labour want – or what they say they want – is irrelevant. The action is in Brussels, not Westminster, where the outcome cannot be fudged. But then, as long as our politicians can play their games, why should they care? They get their money, whatever happens.

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