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Sir Keir Starmer has had a big week. But while it began with the Labour leader confidently strutting the world stage it ended with him having fend off Conservative attacks, insisting he was not in favour of rejoining the EU.
The comments he says have been misunderstood led to a national front page claiming Sir Keir was planning a Brexit betrayal and the leader facing internal warnings about going too far.
The controversy came from footage of Sir Keir during his globe-trotting tour when he insisted “we don’t want to diverge” from EU rules at a summit in Montreal.
He says he was simply stating that a Labour government would not water down standards in areas such as food safety or workers’ rights.
But the Conservatives have seized on the comments with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt claiming they would “worry a lot of people that what he really wants to do is to unpick Brexit”.
There has also been concern from within Labour’s own ranks. One MP told i that Leave voters would “understand” Sir Keir’s desire to co-operate with Europe on small boats, and to seek a better Brexit deal, but warned that any further move closer to the EU could become damaging.
The MP told i: “It’s okay as long as it’s taking us to a point after which we’re not going to go any further.
“He’s stretched the envelope to a reasonable point but I wouldn’t want to see it going any further – we have gone as far as we can go before people say: hang on a minute, is there something at play here.”
Others are however more relaxed, with one Labour MP defending a “Red Wall” seat telling i: “Not had any backlash the last couple of days about it, seen Government MPs trying to make a big thing of it, but doesn’t seem to have landed.”
Yesterday saw Sir Keir and shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves out and about trying to dampen any controversy insisting the UK were “not going to be rule takers”, as far as Brussels was concerned.
But i understands there is a feeling at the top of the party that Tory attacks are an inevitable consequence of Sir Keir answering questions about where he stands on key issues, and that there is now a willingness to take the fight to the Tories on areas of traditional weakness.
The week began with diplomacy in the Netherlands, Canada and France – where Sir Keir unveiled his plan to tackle the Channel small boats crisis. It includes ditching the Rwanda plan and seeing an EU returns agreement, as well a desire to rework the Brexit trade deal to bring the UK closer to Brussels.
The Tories reacted by claiming Sir Keir’s asylum plan would see 100,000 migrants “dumped on” UK shores by the EU. But a Shadow Cabinet source said “We were expecting a Tory attack”, and Labour aides and MPs view the policy announcement as a success.
They also point out that the Tories are not on comfortable ground when it comes to the UK’s relationship with the EU.
The Shadow Cabinet source also noted Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch’s decision to scrap a planned bonfire of EU laws at the end of the year meaning thousands will now remain in place indefinitely.
“We have been out of the EU for the best part of four years and the Government has taken the choice not to diverge from some of the regulations already in place,” they said.
“If the Tories are attempting to reduce food or labour standards – they should come clean with the public and let us know which they are seeking to reduce.”
Labour’s new-found confidence on the EU is likely borne out of a string of opinion polls, including for i, suggesting voters believe Brexit is going badly.
Anand Menon, director of the UK an a Changing Europe think-tank, suggested Sir Keir would not suffer for suggesting Britain should have a closer EU relationship in a way that he might have in 2019 when the Brexit debate was at its most polarised.
Professor Menon suggested that any internal disquiet over the tonal shift would likely be limited, adding: “The electoral risk of this is overdone, 70 per cent of Labour voters are pro-Remain and voters have stopped caring about Brexit.
“There is a massive proportion of voters, including Leave voters, who think Brexit is going badly, so the notion the Conservatives can weaponise this by saying Keir Starmer is going to mess up Brexit is for the birds because voters think the Tories have messed it up already.
“It’s also not a salient issue, with just 9 per cent of voters viewing Brexit as the most important issue facing Britain (according to Ipsos Mori). He’s on safe ground here as far as things stand. They (the Tories) are trying but I’m not sure it will get any resonance.”
The renewed boldness on the EU was also reflected by shadow Defence Secretary John Healey, who used a visit to Washington DC to openly tout a potential UK-EU security and defence pact as well as a similar deal with Germany.
He insisted this would not be used as a bargaining chip to get better trade access but said it would help in “resetting relations” under a potential Labour government.
Speaking from the US, Mr Healey told i: “It’s a recognition post-Ukraine and with the strategic challenges of China, a shift in recognition that our economic prosperity is linked to our economic and other security including broader concern about supply chain, national infrastructure, and British technology and industry being important to not only business success, but Britain’s place in the world.”
Labour sources also say they are relaxed about Mr Sunak attempting to turn net zero into an election issue by delaying the 2030 ban on petrol and diesel vehicles to 2035 – a move shadow Energy Secretary Ed Miliband pledged to reverse in government.
The Tories have been widely seen to be attempting to repeat their success in the Uxbridge by-election, in which the party held on to Boris Johnson’s old seat after highlighting the impact of Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ultra-low emissions zone for cars.
But one Shadow Cabinet minister warned it was a mistake as it has alienated the car industry.
“They’ve made a gigantic presumptive leap from the one by-election where the policy was immediate,” they said.
“By the time we get to 2030 new EVs should be cheaper than ICE [petrol and diesel vehicles]. We think the salience of this is low amongst voters. The vast majority of people never buy a brand new car.
Labour MPs in seats with large working class constituents were also unconcerned, with one saying it was a “Sunak own goal”.
“It looks a bit desperate to me,” another MP added. “My voters are not stupid and political parties (especially when desperate) fight the current campaign from the prism of their last victory or even when they ducked a worse outcome.
“So Uxbridge doesn’t translate into a general election win, just as 2017 not going as badly for us as expected did not work again in 2019. Politics like history does not always repeat itself.”