The UK party conference season has now drawn to a close, and a long period of campaigning before a general election, to be held by the latest the end of January 2025, has now begun. Certainly, the mood at the party conferences – particularly Conservative and Labour – the two biggest political parties in the UK, indicated an upcoming election as both leaders, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer, used their speeches to outline their political priorities for the coming months, and to position, or re-position, themselves ahead of a general election.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak used his speech to try to set a new direction for a Conservative Government and billed himself as the face of “change” ready to “lead in a different way”. Among this rhetoric positioning himself as the candidate of change, the Prime Minister also outlined some of his more radical plans – including scrapping of the northern leg of High Speed Rail 2 (the Conservative Party Conference was held in Manchester, one of the UK’s largest northern cities, and where HS2 will no longer link from Birmingham) and a ban on smoking for the next generation.
Keir Starmer’s approach, while arguably lighter on specific policies than Sunak’s, tried to present a party ready to form a Government. Starmer spoke about Labour’s 5 national missions which will “form the backbone of Labour’s election manifesto” – growth, energy, healthcare, safer streets and opportunities – and ended the speech with fighting talk (“Britain will get its future back”) reflecting his, and Labour’s, confidence. And Labour has reason to be confident – only about a week after this, Labour won two Conservative safe seats in a historic night for by-elections. Latest polling indicates the biggest Labour lead for a month after this by-election success, and Starmer’s own net approval rating has risen by 9 points, with a lead also in the proportion of voters who see Starmer as a “prime minister in waiting”.
With obvious trepidation (a general election is still months away, and much can change in politics – despite what the polls say), if Labour were to win the next election, and form a government for the first time in 13 years, Brexit and UK/EU relations will be under the spotlight. Keir Starmer, a staunch remainer, advocated for a second Brexit referendum in his capacity as Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, which he held until 2020. However, in his role now as Leader of the Opposition – and with the desire of gaining Brexit-supporting voters - Starmer has been adamant that the UK would not re-join the European Union if Labour were to come into power. He has also ruled out bringing back free movement of people between the EU and the UK, similar to the “Swiss-style” deal.
Yet more recently, Starmer has been open about seeking a “much better” Brexit trade deal, specifically seeking to rewrite Britain’s Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, which was negotiated by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A number of the measures proposed to be added to the EU deal include an agreement on veterinary standards and improved labour mobility arrangements.
In the context of this, Keir Starmer’s speech at Labour Party Conference offers some very small glimmers of a closer relationship between UK and the EU. For example, Starmer’s mention of “long-term stability for researchers, investors, innovators” may be a slight nod to the recent announcement that the UK will be rejoining the Horizon Europe science research programme under a “bespoke deal”, and he even very briefly mentioned Brexit (via a dig to the Tories): “they [Conservatives] said that Brexit would only bring benefits to our businesses… they can’t see Britain – not your Britain….they look after themselves.”
Aside from the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, however, Starmer has kept guarded on any long-term changes to the UK/EU relationship post-Brexit, and what a closer relationship could look like. As we fast approach a general election, it is expected that there won’t be any major announcements or revisions on Brexit – a controversial talking point in the general election campaign – but these glimmers, although small, suggest a change for strengthening UK and EU relations. David Lammy, Shadow Foreign Secretary, recently suggested that Britain would start “dating” the EU under Labour’s plans to secure closer ties. Given the “very, very bitter divorce” that Britain enacted in the 2016 referendum, any willingness of change, as evidenced by Keir Starmer and his Shadow Cabinet, could suggest a positive and closer relationship between the UK and EU. The 2024 general election could be historic for a number of reasons – the ties between the UK and EU being only one of them.