Keir Starmer – 2020 Speech on the Future Relationship with the EU Bill

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, in the House of Commons on 30 December 2020.

It is often said that there is nothing simple about Brexit, but the choice before the House today is perfectly simple: do we implement the treaty that has been agreed with the EU or do we not? That is the choice. If we choose not to, the outcome is clear: we leave the transition period without a deal—without a deal on security, trade or fisheries, without protection for our manufacturing sector, farming or countless British businesses, and without a foothold to build a future relationship with the EU. Anyone choosing that option today knows there is no time to renegotiate, no better deal coming in the next 24 hours, no extensions, no Humble Addresses and no SO 24s—Standing Order No. 24 debates—so choosing that option leads to one place: no deal.

Or we can take the only other option that is available and implement the treaty that has been negotiated. This is a thin deal. It has many flaws—I will come to that in a moment.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I will in just a minute.

But a thin deal is better than no deal, and not implementing this deal would mean immediate tariffs and quotas with the EU, which will push up prices and drive businesses to the wall. It will mean huge gaps in security, a free-for-all on workers’ rights and environmental protections, and less stability for the Northern Ireland protocol. Leaving without a deal would also show that the UK is not capable of agreeing the legal basis for our future relationship with our EU friends and partners. That matters, because I want Britain to be an outward-looking, optimistic and rules-based country—one that does deals, signs treaties and abides by them.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I will in just one moment.

It matters that Britain has negotiated a treaty with the EU Commission and the 27 member states; and it matters, ultimately, that the UK has not gone down the blind alley of no deal. It means that our future relationship starts on the basis of agreement, not acrimony.

Jonathan Edwards

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for setting out the position of the Labour party, but he used to have six tests for any Brexit deal that he would be willing to support. How many of those tests does he believe the agreement actually meets?

Keir Starmer

There is only one choice today, which is to vote for implementing this deal or to vote for no deal, and those who vote no are voting for no deal. I will give way again to the hon. Gentleman. If he is voting no, does he want no to succeed at 2.30 this afternoon when the House divides?

Jonathan Edwards

I am afraid the leader of the Labour party has accepted the spin of the Government that this is a binary choice between deal and no deal. It says a lot about the way his position has changed over recent weeks.

Keir Starmer

This is the nub of it. Those voting no today want yes. They want others to save them from their own vote. Voting no, wanting yes. That is the truth of the situation, and that is why my party has taken a different path.

Sir Edward Leigh

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on doing the patriotic and right thing today, but there is quite a lot of interest in the country in what deal he would have negotiated if he had been responsible for the negotiations.

Keir Starmer

A better one than this, for the reasons that I am about to lay out. [Interruption.] I will go into some of the detail—not too much—but if anyone believes what the Prime Minister has just said about financial services, they have not read the deal. With no further time for negotiation, when the default is no deal, it is not a mark of how pro-European you are to reject implementing this treaty. It is not in the national interest to duck a question or to hide in the knowledge that others will save you from the consequences of your own vote. This is a simple vote, with a simple choice—do we leave the transition period with a treaty that has been negotiated with the EU, or do we leave with no deal? So Labour will vote to implement this treaty today to avoid no deal and to put in place a floor from which we can build a strong future relationship with the EU.

David Linden

I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for outlining how clear this is for him. His party has two parliamentarians in Edinburgh South—one in the Scottish Parliament and one in Westminster. At 4 o’clock this afternoon, the Member of the Scottish Parliament will vote against the deal and the Member of the Westminster Parliament here will vote for the deal. How does he square that circle?

Keir Starmer

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that it is a different vote. [Interruption.] It is a completely different vote, on a different issue.

David Linden rose—

Keir Starmer

I give way to the hon. Gentleman with my question. When he votes no, against this treaty, this afternoon, does he want the Bill to fail and thus we leave tomorrow night without a deal? Is that the intention? Does he want the result to go the way he is voting?

David Linden

I think the right hon. Gentleman will understand that there will be members of his own party in the Lobby with me this afternoon. If he can point out to me in the Order Paper where I am voting for no deal, I will be very happy. Will he tell me what page that is on?

Keir Starmer

That absolutely identifies the point. He is going to vote in the hope that others will vote the other way and save him from the consequences of his own vote. That is the truth of the situation of the SNP. He is hoping that others will do the right thing and vote in favour of implementing the treaty. We fought against no deal together for months and years, and now those voting no are going to vote for no deal. Nothing is going to happen in the next 24 hours to save this country from no deal. So he wants to vote for something, but he does not want that vote to succeed; he wants others to have the burden of voting for it to save us from no deal.

Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con) rose—

Keir Starmer

I will give way in a minute. I am going to make some progress.

It is, of course, completely unacceptable that this debate is happening now—one day before the end of the transition period. The Prime Minister said he had a deal that was oven-ready.

Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

That was about a year ago. Then it was supposed to be ready in July, then September, then November and finally it arrived on Christmas eve. That matters, because businesses have had no chance to prepare for the new regulations. Talk to businesses about their concerns. They have real difficulties now. Many of them have already taken decisions about jobs and investment because of the uncertainty, and of course that is made worse by the pandemic.

Let me now go to the deal itself and analyse some of the flaws in it. Let us start with the Prime Minister and what he said on Christmas eve in his press conference. He said:

“there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade.”

His words. He was not being straight with the British public. That is plain wrong. It is worse than that. It was not an aside, or an interview or an off-the-record remark. It was a scripted speech. He said that there would be no non-tariff barriers to trade. The Prime Minister knows that it is not true. Every Member of this House knows it is not true. I will give way to the Prime Minister to correct the record. Either stand up and say that what he said was true, or take this opportunity to correct the record. I give way.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that this is a zero tariff, zero quota deal. He says that he would have negotiated a different and better deal. Perhaps he can tell us whether he would have remained within the customs union and within the single market. Perhaps he will also say a little bit about how he proposes to renegotiate the deal, build on it and take the UK back into the EU, because that remains his agenda.

Mr Speaker

Let us get on with the debate.

Keir Starmer

Typical deflection. The Prime Minister, at a press conference, told the British public that there will be

“no non-tariff barriers to trade”.

The answer he gave just now is not an answer to that point. It is not true, and the Prime Minister knows what he said was not true. He simply will not stand up and acknowledge it today. That speaks volumes about the sort of Prime Minister we have.

Adam Holloway

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I will in just a minute. The truth is this: there will be an avalanche of checks, bureaucracy and red tape for British businesses. Every business I have spoken to knows this; every business any Member has spoken to knows this. That is what they are talking about. It is there in black and white in the treaty.

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)

Will the Leader of the Opposition give way?

Keir Starmer

I will in one minute. There will be checks for farmers, for our manufacturers, for customs, on rules of origin, VAT, safety and security, plant and animal health, and much more. Many British exporters will have to go through two regulatory processes to sell to existing clients in the EU. To keep tariff-free trade, businesses will have to prove that enough of their parts come from the EU or the UK. So there will be significant and permanent burdens on British businesses. It is somewhat ironic that for years the Conservative party has railed against EU bureaucracy, but this treaty imposes far more red tape on British businesses than there is at the moment.

Mr Dhesi

The lead-up to this Brexit deal has seen a litany of broken promises. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said that there was

“no threat to the Erasmus scheme”.—[Official Report, 15 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 1021.]

Among other things, he made grand statements about taking back full control of our fishing waters. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, despite all the promises, it is not only British fishermen who are accusing the Prime Minister of betrayal and of having caved in to arrive at this insufficient deal?

Keir Starmer

These are examples of the Prime Minister making promises that he does not keep. That is the hallmark of this Prime Minister.

Adam Holloway

Can the Leader of the Opposition not in some way join the millions of people in this country, including many millions of patriotic Labour voters, on the remarkable achievement of the Prime Minister?

Keir Starmer

I am glad that there is a deal and I will vote for the Bill to implement it, because a deal is far better than no deal. That is the right thing to do. But to pretend that the deal is not what it is is not being honest, and nor is it a base from which we can go forward. To pretend that there are no non-tariff barriers when there are is just not true. The Prime Minister will not just get up and say, “I got it wrong. I didn’t tell the truth when I was addressing the public.” [Interruption.] The Prime Minister says I do not know what I am talking about. His words were that there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade. Will there be no non-tariff barriers to trade, Prime Minister? Yes or no? The ox is now on his tongue, I see.

Whatever the Prime Minister says, there is very little protection for our services. That is a gaping hole in this deal. Ours is primarily a services economy. Services account for 80% of our economic output, and we have a trade surplus with the EU in services, but what we have in this text does not go beyond what was agreed with Canada or Japan. The lack of ambition is striking, and the result is no mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Talk to doctors, nurses, dentists, accountants, pharmacists, vets, engineers and architects about how they will practise now in other EU states, where they will have to have their qualifications agreed with each state separately with different terms and conditions. Anybody who thinks that that is an improvement really does need to look again at the deal.

Matt Rodda (Reading East) (Lab)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Keir Starmer

In just one minute.

The deal will make it harder to sell services into the EU and will create a huge disincentive for businesses to invest.

The very thin agreement on short business travel will make things much harder for artists and musicians, for example. Prime Minister, they want to hear what the answers to these questions are, not just comments from the Front Bench.

On financial services, even the Prime Minister himself has accepted—I do not know whether he will stick to this, or if it is one that he will not own now—that the deal does not go as far as we would have liked, so pretending that it is a brilliant deal just is not on. We have to rely on the bare bones of equivalence arrangements, many of which are not even in place, that could be unilaterally withdrawn at short notice. That is the reality of the situation. We are left to wonder: either the Prime Minister did not try to get a strong deal to protect our service economy, or he tried and failed. Which is it?

Let me turn to security. The treaty offers important protections when compared with the utter chaos of no deal, such as on DNA and fingerprints. There are third-party arrangements to continue working with Europol and Eurojust. I worked with Europol and Eurojust, so I know how important that is, but the treaty does not provide what was promised: a security partnership of unprecedented breadth and depth. It does not, and anybody today who thinks that it does has not read the deal. We will no longer have access to EU databases that allow for the sharing of real-time data, such as the Schengen information system for missing persons and objects. Anybody who thinks that that is not important needs to bear in mind that it is used on a daily basis. In 2019, it was accessed and consulted 600 million times by the UK police—600 million times. That is how vital it is to them. That is a massive gap in the deal, and the Prime Minister needs to explain how it will be plugged.

Let me turn to tariffs and quotas. The Prime Minister has made much of the deal delivering zero tariffs and zero quotas. It does—

The Prime Minister

Aha!

Keir Starmer

Thank you, Prime Minister. It does, or rather it does for as long as British businesses meet the rules of origin requirements. It does as long as the UK does not step away from a level playing field on workers’ rights and environment—

The Prime Minister

Rubbish!

Keir Starmer

The Prime Minister says rubbish—[Interruption.] I have read it. I have studied it. I have been looking at nothing else than this for four years. The Prime Minister pretends that he has got sovereignty, and zero tariffs and zero quotas. He has not: the moment he exercises the sovereignty to depart from the level playing field, the tariffs kick in. This is not a negotiating triumph. It sets out the fundamental dilemma that has always been at the heart—

The Prime Minister

Well, vote against it then!

Keir Starmer

The Prime Minister says vote against it—vote for no deal. As my wife says to our children, “If you haven’t got anything sensible to say, it’s probably better to say nothing.”

The situation sets out the fundamental dilemma that has always been at the heart of the negotiations. If we stick to the level playing field, there are no tariffs and quotas, but if we do not, British businesses, British workers and British consumers will bear the cost. The Prime Minister has not escaped that dilemma; he has negotiated a treaty that bakes it in. This poses the central question for future Governments and Parliaments: do we build up from this agreement to ensure that the UK has high standards and that our businesses are able to trade as freely as possible in the EU market with minimal disruption; or do we choose to lower standards and slash protections, and in that way put up more barriers for our businesses to trade with our nearest and most important partners?

For Labour, this is clear: we believe in high standards. We see this treaty as a basis to build from, and we want to retain a close economic relationship with the EU that protects jobs and rights, because that is where our national interest lies today and tomorrow. However, I fear that the Prime Minister will take the other route, because he has used up so much time and negotiating capital in doing so. He has put the right to step away from common standards at the heart of the negotiation, so I assume that he wants to make use of that right as soon as possible. If he does, he has to be honest with the British people about the costs and consequences of that choice for businesses, jobs and our economy. If he does not want to exercise that right, he has to explain why he wasted so much time and sacrificed so many priorities for a right that he is not going to exercise.

After four and a half years of debate and division, we finally have a trade deal with the EU. It is imperfect, it is thin and it is the consequence of the Prime Minister’s political choices, but we have only one day before the end of the transition period, and it is the only deal that we have. It is a basis to build on in the years to come. Ultimately, voting to implement the treaty is the only way to ensure that we avoid no deal, so we will vote for the Bill today.

But I do hope that this will be a moment when our country can come together and look to a better future. The UK has left the EU. The leave/remain argument is over—whichever side we were on, the divisions are over. We now have an opportunity to forge a new future: one outside the EU, but working closely with our great partners, friends and allies. We will always be European. We will always have shared values, experiences and history, and we can now also have a shared future. Today’s vote provides the basis for that.