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Tories think Sir Keir Starmer has made a strategic blunder – but the Labour leader is clearly up for a fight on migration | Politics News

Labour has set out a major plank of its pre-election foreign and security policy which is worthy of close scrutiny – even though some of it is simply old news.

The headlines are Sir Keir Starmer’s plan for migration – treating people-smugglers like terrorists in as far as this is practical – but the most eye-catching part is his willingness to nudge the UK closer to the EU’s orbit, and be upfront about unpopular trade-offs this will trigger.

This matters.

Politics Hub: Sunak makes claim about migration plans as war of words continues

Until now, as leader Sir Keir has adopted a somewhat cool tone towards the EU, to the frustration of some in his party and continuing to reject rejoining the single market and customs union.

Focusing on the shortcomings of Boris Johnson’s deal rather than big picture principles, this approach peaked in December 2022 when the Labour leader said rejoining the EU’s single market would not boost growth. Any other strategy could cost him amongst Brexit voters in the Red Wall was the belief.

Today marks the first interesting departure.

As part of the package to tackle migration, Sir Keir has said he wants a returns agreement with the EU to help tackle migration.

This is no surprise – the returns policy itself is actually nearly a year old and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has been talking about the need for an EU returns agreement for much of this year.

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Labour plan to ‘smash the gangs’

What is new is Sir Keir’s explicit commitment to look at migrant quotas in exchange for such a deal.

Asked by The Times if he would be willing to accept the “quid pro quo” of migrant quotas in exchange for a deal, he said: “That would be part of any discussions and negotiations with Europe.”

This is a row the Labour leader is now happy to have.

One Labour source said there was a willingness to be braver about discussions involving the EU: “What’s different now is that we are happy to have a talk about what’s practical.

“This is not a discussion about going back to the single market and customs union.

“But we don’t have a good security deal and that’s mad both for the UK and the EU.”

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PM on Labour migration plans

There has been a discussion for some weeks amongst certain Labour figures about how Sir Keir’s approach to the EU should evolve.

Not least because the polls shift against Brexit – YouGov suggests that Labour are now finally trusted as much as the Tories to handle Brexit, and 61% of people said in July that Brexit was a failure. This appears to be the first step by Sir Keir in a journey.

The issue is not straightforward for the Tories either.

They have used today’s words by Sir Keir to claim any “quota” deal could mean up to 120,000 migrants a year arriving, making the UK a “dumping ground” for the EU.

Yet Rishi Sunak’s government has also long been openly and explicitly seeking a returns agreement with the EU.

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Today Number 10 is emphatic that they would never and have never been open to accepting a quota of EU migrants as part of a returns deal, with others in government pointing out that Rwanda would make that unnecessary.

Yet unhelpfully for Mr Sunak, this red line was not made explicit even a month ago when Number 10 was briefing they wanted a deal with the EU.

This inconvenience will do little to dampen the attacks on Sir Keir, however, with Tories adamant he has made a big strategic blunder today.

This is a fight both sides appear to want to have.

Can the Tories use this moment to convince voters Sir Keir is an EU fanatic who wants to open the migration floodgates?

Or does the Labour leader emerge as the grown-up willing to talk about potentially unpalatable trade-offs?

It’s unclear quite where this ends with voters.

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