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Two months on from the Labour party’s election defeat and it is nowhere near finished choosing its new leader. The contest has narrowed to three candidates: shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey, prominent backbencher Lisa Nandy and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer. On April 4, one of them will be crowned British opposition leader.

There is a widespread assumption in the party that Sir Keir will win. He entered the race in a commanding position, as the experienced frontbencher liked by the grassroots but also with some gravitas to pull Labour out of the doldrums. None of the other contenders has dented his lead. Judging by the publicly available metrics — local Labour party nominations, support from MPs, polling of the membership, bookmakers’ odds — Sir Keir is way ahead.

In private, senior party figures acknowledge that the race is all but a done deal. On the pro-Jeremy Corbyn left of Labour, insiders concede that Ms Long Bailey has improved during the campaign but “it’s too late, people have already made up their minds”. They are expecting Sir Keir to win, possibly even on first preference votes. Ms Nandy’s supporters think she has had a good race but is unlikely to come near victory. And on the pro-Tony Blair right of the party, insiders think Sir Keir will win, and they await his crab-like gradual shift away from leftwing politics.

What will a Starmer-led Labour party mean for Brexit? Broadly, not a lot. Boris Johnson’s government has an 80-seat majority in the House of Commons, which is enough to counter any rebellion over any trade deal struck with the EU. A strong parliamentary majority in Westminster is an “elective dictatorship” and there is little the opposition can do to challenge it until the next polling day.

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Where Sir Keir will change the Brexit dynamics is on scrutiny. As a former head of public prosecutions, he knows how to weaponise detail. If a trade treaty emerges later this year, his past expertise will allow him to uncover uncomfortable details Mr Johnson has signed up to. This type of scrutiny has been sorely missed in Westminster over the past four years.

His top team will also look radically different to Mr Corbyn’s. The next Labour shadow cabinet will be younger and more in his centre-left mould. Well-known MPs such as Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper and Ed Miliband are all mooted for a comeback — all of whom may prove able in scrutinising the government.

The most acute difficulty for the government will probably be what a trade deal means for the “red wall” — those Brexit-supporting seats in the Midlands and north of England that voted Tory for the first time last year. The loose Canada-esque deal Mr Johnson wishes to strike will create trading friction, raising significant tariff and non-tariff barriers come January 1 2021. 

The very places that gave the Tories their commanding majority are the ones most at risk from such a deal. Their manufacturing bases are bigger, their reliance on just-in-time supply chains more significant. If a Tory trade deal creates significant disruption, these will be the first places to suffer.

If the British economy and trade flows sour, Sir Keir can argue at the next election that the Conservatives have prioritised their traditional voting in the south of England — reliant on services, not goods trade — while dismissing their new supporters in the north.

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When it comes to that election, Sir Keir is unlikely to run on a policy of rejoining the EU. He may have been the party’s strongest advocate of Remain, but he has acknowledged the argument is lost. There is negligible public support for the UK to go back in at present, and it would be a disastrous policy in the red wall seats that Labour lost. 

Instead, Sir Keir’s Labour party may focus on trade and campaign for a closer trade deal with the EU. He is aware that Brexit never really ends — it is just a series of endless negotiations and cliff edges. There will be plenty more after the initial deal is struck, and plenty of opportunities for Labour to shape the debate once again.

Further reading

EU leaders propose budget compromise at fraught summit
A group of EU leaders have proposed a compromise aimed at breaking the stalemate in vexed budget talks in Brussels. Leaders including Angela Merkel of Germany, Emmanuel Macron of France and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte met Charles Michel, the European Council president, to discuss an extra €20bn of savings. (Mehreen Khan, Sam Fleming and Jim Brunsden, FT)

Fish and finance have more in common than meets the eye
It is almost worthy of Monty Python. As the Brexit negotiations move into the hard-edged territory of thrashing out the details of Britain’s future relationship with the EU, it looks as though it will all come down to the question of fish versus finance. But as one analyst waspishly noted, Harrods department store generates more value for the UK economy than the “fishing and aquaculture” sectors. (Frederick Studemann, FT)

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GREENOCK, SCOTLAND - MARCH 05: Deckhand on the Guide Me prawn trawler Angus Brown lands a prawn catch from Loch Long on March 5, 2019 in Greenock, Scotland. Scotlands live seafood industry is facing the probability of extra paperwork at border controls, if the UK crashes out of the European Union without any trade deal. The costs could potentially run into many millions of pounds each year even if the European Unions stringent requirements for certificates are disregarded by transporters. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

London and south-east dominate England’s jobs growth (Chris Tighe, FT)

Music industry fears bands will be unable to tour UK without visas (Lisa O’Carroll, The Guardian)

Hard numbers

Post-Brexit visas divide English football
For the FA, English football’s governing body, Brexit offers an opportunity to introduce curbs on foreign players and develop local talent that will boost the English national team. But the Premier League sees a threat to a great British export. Janan Ganesh asks whether Liverpool’s machine can conquer the US. (FT)

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FT UK Politics podcast — live recording

Join presenter Sebastian Payne and guests for a live recording of the FT’s UK Politics Podcast, a weekly in-depth discussion of political news and views. Robert Shrimsley, Miranda Green and colleagues have prowled the corridors of power for years without losing their fascination with SW1, policies and personalities. Now they want to hear your questions. On February 26 at 6pm at Bracken House, 1 Friday Street, London EC4M 9BT. Register now.



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