Fred de Fossard is head of the British Prosperity Unit at the Legatum Institute.
Sir Keir Starmer has been on a foreign tour recently, doing a pre-emptive, presumed victory lap as a prime minister in waiting; he visited the Élysée Palace to see Emmanuel Macron in the same week as the King.
Sir Keir has also made some meaty policy announcements about what Labour would do in office, particularly around our relationship with the EU.
The Labour leader stated that Labour would renegotiate the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) between the UK and the EU to make Brexit “work”. He said that Labour had no interest in diverging from EU regulations, and even thata Labour government would accept quotas of migrants from the EU.
In many respects this isn’t surprising. Sir Keir has criticised the Government’s Brexit deal since it was agreed, and has made various statements about the changes he would like to see were he in office.
All of these, naturally, involve some sort of closer alignment with the EU. These range from veterinary and sanitary, to commitments on product or environmental standards, all without formally rejoining the EU’s Single Market or Customs Union.
It would be a messy web of deals, akin to the series of bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland, but with a Labour flavour.
Whether the EU would accept this is another question. As things stand, it seems unlikely considering the terms of the forthcoming review of the TCA. However, the EU may look politically different in 2025, and its attitude to a Labour government in Westminster is not yet known.
This poses a political problem for Sir Keir. He will have to make the case for following the EU’s lead on policies that will run counter to British interests, such as French and German protectionist industrial policy (as highlighted by Wolfgang Münchau at Eurointelligence). Just because the British public appear disgruntled with the state of the economy today does not make a case for realignment or re-entry, nor does it mean it is sensible or pragmatic to hug close an institution whose interests differ from Britain’s.
Although this offers a political opportunity for the Conservatives against the Long March to Rejoin – footage of Sir Keir’s appearance at People’s Vote rallies will be dusted off – Tory ministers should think what this means for their policy in office over the next year.
If Brexit is threatened by a Labour government, then the current Conservative one should make Brexit as irreversible as possible, just as Gordon Brown entrenched Labour’s agenda in 2009 and 2010. This will not only protect the political achievement of leaving the EU, but it will increase the jeopardy and difficulty of any attempts by Labour to reverse it.
Ministers should focus on where to defend and entrench divergence from the European Union, and complete a number of half-done projects to ensure they are not undone.
The most significant is trade policy. The first tariff-free shipments of sugar are being delivered to the UK thanks to the free trade agreement with Australia. This is totemic: German-led sugar protectionism against Victorian Britain was one of the first acts of Europeanist protectionism over a century ago.
We must ensure supply chains between Britain and her new trading partners are strengthened and developed as much as possible over the next year, to accustom the public with the direct consumer benefits of free trade.
This will also reorient trade away from Europe, and make us less dependent on food from the continent. Today, around one third of all European beef exports go to the UK. Replacing as much of this with high-quality meat from Australia and New Zealand would cut our economic dependence on Europe, and revive our historic trade links with the much-loved Antipodes.
Trade policy should also be used to increase regulatory competition. Following the Government’s decision to unilaterally recognise the CE mark, which determines whether consumer goods are safe to use, ministers should go further and recognise consumer goods’ safety standards in all CPTPP nations, to increase the flow of modern, safe goods in the country.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister must build on the Atlantic Declaration by agreeing more Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with US states on trade and professional services, and make every effort to restart negotiations with the United States over a free trade agreement.
Few policies could entrench Brexit and transform the British economy for the better than such a deal, creating a new transatlantic regulatory alliance which would outweigh the sluggish EU. This would be an ambitious but logical next step, following the AUKUS submarine agreement and the deregulatory Edinburgh Reforms to financial services.
One of Labour’s strongest cards, especially with regard to Northern Ireland, is its promise to a veterinary agreement with the EU to ease trade frictions at the border. This would essentially end Britain’s global trade policy, as it would erode our ability to embrace new and innovative standards for food and consumers goods.
Unfortunately, the continuing farce of the Government’s future border policy, which looks set to introduce £100 checks on individual shipments of cheese from Europe, makes Labour’s case for them.
Rishi Sunak should thus overturn the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs’ intransigence and order the implementation of a digitised trusted trader scheme which allows all trusted traders to self-certify their imports to the UK. This would do a great deal to end business anxiety about trade and bring the endless delays to introducing these checks to an end.
The Conservatives will certainly attack the Labour Party as an agent of Remain, and they should focus on Sir Keir’s inconsistency, as well as his curious preference for technocracy in Davos over democracy in Westminster.
However, they must govern with the same political vigour with which they campaign, and put maximising Brexit at the heart of conservatism, now and for the future. Perhaps actually delivering conservative policies will prove popular.