Keir Starmer has said that free movement of people between the UK and the EU “won’t come back” if he becomes Prime Minister.
The Labour Party leader added that it is “a red line” for him since the country has already made its decision on Brexit, and argued that any backtracking would lead to years more negotiations with Brussels. His comments come in stark contrast to what he said in 2020 during the Labour leadership election, when he voiced support for the free movement of people.
Some in the MP’s own party, particularly those who supported his leadership bid a few years ago and believe EU immigration should be welcomed, will likely be disappointed at the recent remarks.
Starmer also ruled out a Swiss-style deal with the European Union, which would allow the UK access to the single market but also require more relaxed immigration rules.
So what exactly did the Labour Party leader say, and how does it compare with his previous comments on the topic?
What did Keir Starmer say about free movement?
Speaking to MailOnline on Saturday (26 November), Starmer said: “A Swiss-style deal simply wouldn’t work for Britain. Freedom of movement is a red line for me. It was part of the deal of being in the EU but since we left I’ve been clear it won’t come back under my government.”
His words came after rumours spread that the government was considering a deal similar to the one that Switzerland had with the EU, prompting something of a mutiny amongst the Tories. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak denied that there was any truth to the reports, stating: “On trade, let me be unequivocal about this. Under my leadership, the United Kingdom will not pursue any relationship with Europe that relies on alignment with EU laws. I voted for Brexit. I believe in Brexit and I know that Brexit can deliver, and is already delivering, enormous benefits and opportunities for the country.”
The Holborn and St Pancras MP continued by expressing concern that any backtracking or “ripping up” of the Brexit deal would plunge the UK back into a debate it has already had. He said: “I’m worried that there are senior members of Rishi Sunak’s government who don’t seem to understand that and are going round saying they want to open up the Brexit debate again.
“Let’s get on with what the country wants – face the future, seize the opportunities Britain has and make Brexit work.”
What did Starmer say before?
Starmer’s comments mark a radical change from what he said in January 2020 during the Labour leadership election. He signalled that he would bring back UK-EU free movement if he was in power, commenting: “I want families to be able to live together, whether that’s in Europe or here… We have to make the case for freedom of movement.”
When asked at the time by The Mirror if he would “bring back” free movement of citizens, he replied: “Yes of course - bring back, argue for, challenge.” So the change in stance is clear.
Trying to explain the U-turn, Starmer’s official spokesperson told journalists: “He said he would support freedom of movement whilst the negotiations were going on. Clearly we have now left the EU, so that matter is resolved.”
Pushed on the comments the MP made in 2020, the spokesperson replied: “That was what he said in the leadership election.” He added that it was “correct” that this is no longer Starmer’s position on the matter.
What has the reaction been?
Starmer has already faced criticism from those considered on the left of the political spectrum. Commentator Owen Jones claimed the MP had run “the most dishonest campaign for the leadership of a major political party” and even called him one of the “most dishonest politicians in Britain”.
Howard Beckett, assistant general secretary at trade union Unite, called Starmer a “phoney”, while SNP Shadow Culture Secretary John Nicolson wrote on Twitter: “The very definition of cynical politics. Keir Starmer ran for the Labour leadership promising to ‘defend free movement’. Now he calls preventing free movement “a red line’. The ending of free movement is one of the most damaging aspects of Brexit.”
Meanwhile, Shadow Levelling-Up Secretary Lisa Nandy sought to suggest the U-turn wasn’t truly a change in position. She told Sky News: “I’ve always believed in freedom of movement, but only if it’s aligned to a strong investment in the skills and the opportunities for young people here in Britain. So we haven’t changed our position in that respect.”
She added: “I don’t see any route to do it. That’s the honest truth. I served as Shadow Foreign Secretary for two years and there was no appetite across the European Union for reopening negotiations with the UK. I don’t think there’s much of an appetite in this country, either. We’ve divided amongst ourselves for nearly a decade now on a whole succession of issues and this country’s got to move forwards.”
What else has Starmer said about immigration and Brexit?
Starmer has been speaking about immigration and Brexit quite a lot recently. Addressing business leaders at the CBI’s annual conference in Birmingham last week, Starmer warned that UK industry must be weaned off “immigration dependency” in order to achieve economic growth.
He argued that businesses need to “invest more in training up workers who are already here”, but also said he would be “pragmatic” when it comes to the shortages felt by companies. The MP said he would focus on improving the current points-based immigration system, which was brought in after Brexit, to ensure the UK could receive skilled foreign workers.