Labour deputy Tom Watson opens door to permanent single market membership

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Labour’s shambles over its key Brexit policy deepened today after deputy leader Tom Watson said the party might seek “permanent” membership of the single market and the customs union.

The senior MP changed the line just days after shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer announced that Labour would back temporary membership of both free trade clubs for up to four years after leaving the EU in 2019.

The shifting position by the two shadow Cabinet members follows a bitter war over Brexit policy sparked by shadow chancellor John McDonnell and leader Jeremy Corbyn flatly ruling out staying in the single market after the election.

Mr Watson also agreed that Labour was now the party of “soft Brexit”. Asked on Newsnight if the term reflected the party’s position, he said: “Yes, you have seen Keir Starmer’s statement, we think that being part of the customs union and the single market is important in those transitional times because that is the way you protect jobs and the economy, and it might be a permanent outcome of the negotiations, but we have got to see how those negotiations go.”

The issue is sensitive because northern Labour MPs fear membership of the single market, which means paying into the EU and accepting continued free movement, would repel former Ukip voters who backed them in May.  But the big unions say a soft Brexit is vital to protect jobs.

In an article for New European, Labour MPs Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern say the party still lacks a “coherent” stance. Welcoming Sir Keir’s shift they urge: “There is still much to be done if the Labour Party is to define a coherent long-term vision for the country.”


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