Keir Starmer has abandoned the commitment to free movement of people in the European Union he made to Labour members during the party’s leadership contest.
The Labour leader said his party had to be honest with the public, and that if it won the next general election a major renegotiation of the Brexit treaty would not be possible.
The deal, which was finalised on Christmas Eve, confirmed the end of free movement for Britons and EU nationals within each others’ countries because it kept the UK out of the single market, as the Tories promised in their 2019 election manifesto.
In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Starmer was reminded that when standing for the Labour leadership after the party’s election defeat he said, as one of 10 pledges, he would “defend free movement as we leave the EU”.
Marr also pointed out that in January 2019, when he was asked specifically if he would bring back free movement of EU citizens to the UK, he had replied: “Yes of course, bring back, argue for, challenge.”
Starmer told Marr, however, that he was ruling out the sort of extensive renegotiation of the Brexit treaty that would be required to restore free movement.
“I don’t think that there’s scope for major renegotiation. We’ve just had four years of negotiation. We’ve arrived at a treaty and now we’ve got to make that treaty work,” he said.
He said there were aspects of the treaty that might be improved on, including how it covered the creative industries and what it did for the service sector, which he said had largely been left out.
When it was put to him that this would disappoint Labour members who voted for him because of his commitment to free movement, Starmer said it was not realistic to pretend that the EU would want to negotiate a new Brexit treaty with the UK.
“Whether we like it or not, that is going to be the treaty that an incoming Labour government inherits and has to make work. And it is not being straight with the British public to say we can come into office in 2024 and operate some other treaty,” he said.
Free movement became an issue in the leadership campaign after the party conference backed the principle in autumn 2019. The commitment was linked to defending migrants’ rights generally, but it contradicted previous party comments saying free movement would end if the UK left the EU.
Asked by Marr if he thought government debt, at about 100% of GDP, was at a dangerous level, Starmer said: “We’re going to have to reassess debt.” He would not, however, say how until he knew the state of the economy at the time of the next election.
He refused to commit to renewing Labour’s 2019 pledge for free broadband in the next election manifesto, although he said more should be done to improve broadband access for disadvantaged pupils and their families.
Starmer also said he did not favour another Scottish independence referendum now, but that he thought Boris Johnson was wrong to rule one out for another 40 years.
He also said the status quo with regard to Scotland wasn’t working, which is why he said Labour favoured a constitutional commission.