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Artillery Row

What does Labour’s new team mean for Brexit?

Sir Keir purges traces of Brexit sympathy from his front bench

Labour’s old shadow cabinet was led by a Brexiteer who railed against the EU his whole career. Jeremy Corbyn was a well-known Eurosceptic until the referendum came and many accuse him of sabotaging Labour’s Remain campaign stance by not wholeheartedly campaigning in the run up to the vote. John McDonnell, his shadow Chancellor, and Diane Abbott, the former shadow Home Secretary, were also both known to have eurosceptic sympathies prior to sitting on the front bench and both resigned on Saturday before they could be sacked by the new leader Keir Starmer. So what does the new order look like?

Despite some past euroscepticism, nobody from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet ever admitted voting for Brexit. This hasn’t changed: Nobody from Keir Starmer’s new team has ever admitted to having voted for Brexit either.

But there are some points of interest amongst the changing of the guard.

From her votes, Emily Thornberry, who now shadows the International Trade Secretary, appears very slightly sympathetic to Brexit. Time and a degree of competence means the Islington South MP who was chosen to deputise for Jeremy Corbyn during PMQs, has got past the self-inflicted reputational debacle when she appeared to mock the display of the cross of St George outside a house in Rochdale. Labour’s London-led tonal failings on Brexit have kept its vote up in the capital, but have cost it heavily in its former heartlands.

In Jeremy Corbyn’s outgoing front-bench, there were only three people who voted Aye in September 2015 on the Commons vote to hold an EU referendum: Cat Smith, Richard Burgon and Emily Thornberry. The vote which caused high drama in the Conservative Party saw the vast majority of the Labour Party abstaining  – which means these three MPs voting in favour was significant.

Sir Keir was known to have pushed Labour’s Brexit policy further towards Remain

But when Keir Starmer picked his new team, Emily Thornberry was demoted, moving from the Shadow Foreign Secretary brief to shadowing the International Trade Secretary. Cat Smith remains in her minor role as Shadow Minister for “Voter engagement and Youth Affairs”. The third member who voted for an EU referendum, Richard Burgon, has been sacked from his Shadow Justice Secretary brief.

Everyone else from both shadow cabinets (Corbyn’s outgoing team and Starmer’s incoming team) abstained or wasn’t an MP when the vote was held deciding on whether to have a referendum. Neither did any member of either team ever vote for Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

During the ‘indicative votes’ when MPs were presented a list of Brexit options, every member of the new shadow cabinet voted Aye to the “Cooper/Boles plan” to extend Article 50 except for Emily Thornberry. And all of them voted for a second referendum except for Lisa Nandy (the new Shadow Foreign Secretary) and Jim McMahon (the incoming Shadow Transport Secretary).

All of the new front bench voted for Ken Clarke’s plan to keep the UK in a Customs Union except for Jo Stevens (Shadow Secretary of State for DMCS) who abstained, and David Lammy (Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice) who also abstained.

One member of the old shadow cabinet, Ian Lavery, voted for “Contingent Preferential Arrangements” proposed by the Brexiteer Tory MP Marcus Fysh as a potential Brexit compromise to minimise trade disruption. But Lavery has been sacked as Chairman of the Labour Party and replaced by Angela Rayner.

Over the last few years Sir Keir, when Shadow Brexit Secretary, was known to have pushed Labour’s Brexit policy further towards Remain and he waged private battles with the leadership until Labour policy ultimately became supportive of a second referendum in which Labour would campaign to remain. This has immediately become a hard left critique of why Corbyn failed in 2019, rather than achieve again the relative success of his 2017 result. It was the fault, Corbynites aver, of tone-deaf wilful pro-EU MPs like Starmer for hanging round Corbyn’s neck a policy he couldn’t rhetorically or politically sustain.

Despite a few points of interest, in broad terms, a group of ardent pro-Remainers led by a small group of closet Brexiteers has been replaced by a group of pro-EU politicians led by a man who closed his ears and eyes and mouth to every scandal under Corbyn bar, by Starmer’s lights, the disgrace of not being keen enough on overturning the Referendum.

The new Labour leader has already suggested the transition period should be extended and criticised Boris Johnson for enshrining the date into law. Don’t expect support of the Government’s Brexit policy from the opposition any time soon. It remains to be seen whether playing to a presumed gallery of other wistful would-be still-Remainers will make electoral sense. Certainly it amounts to giving Labour’s current narrow base exactly what they want to hear.

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