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Labour MP Barry Gardiner: party’s Brexit tests are ‘bollocks’

Recording of party frontbencher emerges hours after apology for Good Friday agreement criticism

Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary and Jeremy Corbyn loyalist, has described Labour’s six tests on Brexit as “bollocks”, ridiculed the “meaningful vote” on the deal that Labour MPs fought for and said “any politician who tells you what’s going to happen … around that final deal is lying to you”.

His remarks, caught on tape at a question and answer session after a speech in Germany last month, are the most disruptive within Labour since the general election cemented Corbyn’s position as party leader. They will be regarded by some in the shadow cabinet as a deliberate attempt to wreck Labour’s carefully negotiated position on Brexit.

The recording emerged hours after Gardiner was forced to apologise for suggesting that the Good Friday agreement was outdated, a suggestion made at the same event in Germany.

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, is understood to have raised Gardiner’s comments about the Good Friday agreement with Corbyn’s office, and is expected to make a second complaint on Tuesday.

Starmer has repeatedly demanded that any Brexit deal achieves “the exact same benefits” as the current relationship with the European Union. It was one of six tests set a year ago, just before article 50 was triggered, setting the negotiations in progress.

 

Gardiner was recorded ridiculing the proposal to have the same benefits – “It’s bollocks. Always has been bollocks” – and went on to dismiss the whole strategy of the six tests.

“We know very well that we cannot have the exact same benefits. And actually, you know, it would have made sense, because it was the Tories that said they were going to secure the exact same benefits, and our position should have been precisely to say: ‘They have said that they will secure the exact same benefits and we are going to hold them to that standard’.”

Gardiner then poured scorn on the idea of holding a “meaningful vote” in parliament on the final deal – Labour’s proudest achievement during the passage of the Brexit bill.

“You tell me what a meaningful vote is? Is a meaningful vote one where you have alternatives and you reject one and you opt for the other? If so, what are the alternatives? … What we’re going to have is, at best, clarity about the divorce settlement.”

He suggested the most likely result would be the downfall of Theresa May, but even that would not resolve anything.

“What is the new prime minister, the new leader of the Conservative party, going to be able to do as a result of that parliamentary vote? Do they go back and try to renegotiate a different deal in Europe? Well, there’s no time for that. Do they hold a general election?”

Labour has not formally addressed the question of what should happen if the deal were unacceptable to the Commons.

In remarks that will further infuriate his shadow cabinet colleagues, Gardiner warned: “Do not underestimate the fact that any politician who tells you what’s going to happen in September/October around that final deal is lying to you. None of us know, none of us, because it is the biggest constitutional crisis that our country has faced in about 40 or 50 years and we simply don’t see a clear way through it at the moment. It’s going piece by piece, staggering.”

A Labour party spokesperson said: “Labour has set six tests for the final Brexit deal. Those include holding the government to its own commitment to deliver the same benefits as the single market and customs union. We have been clear that if those tests are not met Labour will not back it in parliament. Barry Gardiner fully supports that position.”

Gardiner’s remarks will further stoke the anger in the party that arose after the Guardian reported Gardiner’s criticism of the Good Friday agreement.

As dignitaries gathered in Northern Ireland on Tuesday to mark the peace deal’s 20th anniversary, Gardiner said: “I am deeply sorry that my informal remarks in a meeting last month have led to misunderstanding.”

He apologised in particular for the use of the word “shibboleth”, which he acknowledged “gave the impression that I thought the Good Friday aagreement was in any way outdated or unimportant. I absolutely do not.”

Corbyn was also forced to repeat his commitment to ensuring there was no hard border. “There must be no return to a hard border between north and south, and no return to the horrors of the Troubles. All of us on both sides of the Irish Sea have a responsibility to maintain hope for the future.”

Marking the anniversary, Corbyn paid tribute to the architects of the agreement, which he called “a defining moment in Irish history which allowed peace to prevail”.

“It was a great achievement and I pay tribute to the work done by Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and Paul Murphy, as well as those on all sides in Ireland, north and south, in achieving the crucial breakthrough of the peace process.”

Labour insiders were furious at Gardiner’s apparent breach of the hard-won agreement that Labour policy should be to remain in a customs union with the EU, which was agreed and set out in Corbyn’s Coventry speech in February to protect the Good Friday agreement.

“Barry’s remarks certainly weren’t agreed policy, and they were very unhelpful. Barry’s on the Brexit subcommittee and he was in the room when Jeremy’s Coventry speech was drafted, and that’s the policy now, ” one source said.

On Tuesday morning, Gardiner restated his support for party policy. “The Good Friday agreement is a vital and essential part of the relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and has been central to the two decades of peace it has brought about.

“Labour is completely committed to the agreement and opposed to any return of a hard border between north and south. We are committed to negotiating a new customs union between the UK and Ireland as part of a final Brexit settlement, which would play a key role in ensuring there is no hard border.”

Days after Gardiner’s remarks in March, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Owen Smith, was sacked from Labour’s frontbench for writing an article in the Guardian that supported a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal.

Smith described Gardiner’s remarks as “reckless and plain wrong”.

“On the Good Friday agreement’s 20th anniversary, Labour should be defending and sustaining it, not joining the Tory Brexiteers in downplaying its importance and the risks of a hard border,” Smith wrote in a tweet.

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