Labour MPs are being asked by the party’s high command not to focus on problems caused by Brexit when asking questions in parliament, dealing with the media, or posting on social media, according to sources in the parliamentary party.
After a week in which Labour leader Keir Starmer delivered a major speech on how the country should rebuild the economy and reduce inequality without once mentioning Brexit, relations with the EU or the severe problems that have confronted many UK exporters since 1 January, senior party figures reacted with astonishment.
Last night former cabinet member and Europe minister Peter Hain said Brexit had become the “elephant in the room” for Labour.
Hain told the Observer: “It’s quite understandable that Brexit has not been top of Labour’s agenda, but it’s not sustainable to ignore this elephant in the room hurting British businesses, our vital performing arts sector, our security and our foreign policy reach. The Tories delivered a last-minute mess of a Brexit with damaging consequences, not least to stability on the island of Ireland.”
One senior backbencher said the message from the top was very clear – that there should be virtual “radio silence” on the issue. “The order that is coming out is: ‘don’t mention the war’. We are being told that Keir wants to move on and that if we mention the B-word let alone suggest we a need better deal with the EU than Boris Johnson’s we are being unhelpful.”
Several sources said that MP Carolyn Harris, Starmer’s parliamentary aide with responsibility for coordinating with Labour members – including on what questions they ask at prime minister’s questions – had been discouraging interventions on Brexit, saying they would damage the leader.
With difficulties for UK exporters continuing and problems over the Irish protocol unresolved, one member of Starmer’s frontbench team said that attempts to “brush the problems under the carpet just because we wrongly voted for Johnson’s deal in December is pretty close to negligence”. He added that Starmer was “terrified” of offending voters in red wall seats in the Midlands and north where pro-Brexit voters deserted Labour at the 2019 election.
Since 1 January Starmer has not raised Brexit or problems caused by it once at PMQs, and interventions on the issue from backbenchers have been rare. None of the shadow cabinet or frontbench team have made a speech in parliament on the issues affecting UK businesses.
But pressure is now building on Starmer and his shadow cabinet to lay out a vision of how he would try to improve access to the EU single market – the UK biggest export market – after it emerged that thousands of UK firms that export to the bloc are struggling with extra costs and bureaucracy, driving many to invest in warehouses and subsidiaries on the continent, while scaling down and laying off staff in the UK.
At a special meeting of the parliamentary party before Starmer’s speech, Neil Coyle, the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, said Labour should make a “land grab” to become the party of business, given how damaging Brexit had been to trade.
He called for an extension of a theme in Starmer’s speech about a new partnership with business to cover the immediate concerns of every industry “from fishing to finance” as a result of the severe limitations of the government’s trade deal with the EU.
Former transport secretary Andrew Adonis said it was incredible that Starmer had chosen not to mention Brexit in his speech. “Keir’s speech on the economic challenges ahead didn’t once mention the words Brexit, trade or Europe. This is unsustainable. It’s like discussing the weather without mentioning the wind and the rain.”
Referring to Starmer plan for a recovery bond he added: “The best ‘British recovery bond’ would be to rejoin the European customs union and single market as soon as possible. “Slashing our trade and raising prices at this moment is disastrous. The crisis Britain faces isn’t in its capacity to borrow – which has has never been cheaper – but rather mass unemployment and an economic slump. Brexit is a major cause of both. Labour won’t be credible until it promises to fundamentally renegotiate Johnson’s damaging trade reduction treaty.”
The Green party’s Caroline Lucas, whose party has shown some signs of pushing up in the polls in recent weeks, said: “It beggars belief that in his much-trailed ‘reset’ speech on business and the economy, the leader of the opposition – himself once the most pro-European member of the shadow cabinet – couldn’t even bring himself to mention the B-word once. Such radical amnesia may be deemed politically convenient by Starmer, but it represents a shocking abdication of responsibility from the official opposition.”
A Labour source said: “Since January we have consistently and repeatedly highlighted the red tape from Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal that is holding British business back. Only last month, Labour called for more customs agents to help businesses cope with more red tape.”