Sir Keir Starmer has insisted he is not “advocating the status quo” on Brexit as he ruled out rejoining the EU’s single market or customs union if Labour wins the next general election.
The Labour leader also sidestepped a question over whether he was effectively accepting a hard Brexit, but set out a five-point plan to fix the “hulking ‘fatberg’ of red tape and bureaucracy” under the deal brokered by Boris Johnson.
Sir Keir’s remarks came after a speech at the Irish embassy during which he vowed that Britain would not join the single market, restore freedom of movement, or seek to go back into the EU under a future Labour government.
In his first major intervention into the Brexit debate in months, the Labour leader said: “There are some who say ‘we don’t need to make Brexit work – we need to reverse it’. I couldn’t disagree more.”
He acknowledged some may not want to hear that Britain would not return to the single market or a customs union under Labour, but added “it is my job to be frank and honest”.
Setting out his plan to “make Brexit work” at the event hosted by the Centre for European Reform thinktank, Sir Keir pledged to make the existing “poor deal” work by first fixing the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The party would eliminate “most border checks created by the Tory Brexit deal”, he said, and implement a “new veterinary agreement for agri-products between the UK and EU”.
It would also work with business to put in place a “better scheme” to allow low-risk goods to enter Northern Ireland without “unnecessary checks”, he claimed.
Asked by The Independent after his speech whether he was effectively accepting a hard Brexit by ruling out a return to the single market or customs union, the Labour leader said: “I’m putting forward a way of making Brexit work.
“All the government has done is said the words ‘get Brexit done’ and negotiated a deal which is holding us back. What I want is a plan to make Brexit work and that’s what I’ve set out.”
Pressed on whether it was “leadership to accept the status quo”, he also told journalists on Monday: “I’m not advocating the status quo. On the contrary I’m saying the status quo, the government’s deal, is holding us back.”
While some Labour MPs welcomed Sir Keir’s intervention on Brexit on Monday, backbencher Rosie Duffield posted during the speech on social media “not in my name” alongside an emoji of the European Union flag.
Asked what he would say to his backbench critics, Sir Keir also told journalists: “Look, we’re out of the EU, we’ve got to, and we will make Brexit work. You can’t move forward by constantly looking over your shoulder at the past.
“I don’t think there’s an argument that reopening the divisions of the last few years is a recipe for growing our economy.”
He added: “Whichever way we vote, we’re out. My plan is to look forward and make Brexit work. The driving purpose behind this is growing the economy. We’re stagnant as an economy.”
Before Sir Keir delivered his speech, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, accused the Labour leader of a “half-cock” attempt at copying the Conservatives’ plans.
He told LBC: “I’m fascinated by what he’s got to say, or reports of it … and what he wants to do, by and large, is things either that the Conservatives are doing (because) they want to change the Northern Ireland Protocol, so I hope he’ll support us on our Bill.
“And he wants recognition of qualifications, which we’ve already legislated for. So you do wonder if he was half asleep last year.
“I think all that Sir Keir is going to be saying later on today is that he wants to do what the Conservatives are doing but half-cock, so it’s not much of an announcement by him today.”
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford also claimed the Labour Party is now “indistinguishable from the Tories on Brexit”, adding: “Keir Starmer has strengthened the case for independence by embracing the Tories’ hard Brexit”.