Keir Starmer, Brexiteer

The UK opposition leader's latest strategy is to outflank the Conservatives on the right when it comes to Brexit

Keir Starmer has told his supporters it is time to accept the realities of Brexit. PA
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Lagging 20 points or more behind in the opinion polls, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government and his fledgling premiership are already in trouble.

On issues ranging from the economy to immigration, the Tories have generated widespread electoral discontent. And no longer can Mr Sunak count on rebuilding trust by banging the Brexit drum, chanting the mantra that withdrawal from the EU is safe only in Conservative hands.

Let us leave aside the reality, uncomfortable for Brexit supporters, that as evidence of the project’s failure mounts, popular support for it wanes. A clear majority of voters, including a chunky minority of those who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, has come to regard the outcome as a mistake.

The leader of Britain’s Labour opposition, Keir Starmer, has chosen this strangest of moments to pull the Brexit rug briskly from beneath the Conservatives’ feet. Almost as if unhappiness with Brexit were no more than a remote, middle-class "Remoaner" tantrum, he has made the most pro-Leave declaration imaginable from a politician who always valued Britain’s former place in the EU.

“I will always seek a close relationship with our neighbours,” he said, beginning on a harmless enough tone. “We’ve seen through the Ukraine crisis that a strong, united Europe is important.”

Then came the bombshell. “But I’ve been very clear – that better relationship won’t be about the single market, customs union or freedom of movement.”

With that unambiguous policy statement, Mr Starmer actually went much further than hitherto. He presented himself as a Brexit standard bearer as staunch as those on the right of the Conservative party or even the populist and, many argue, extreme rightwing UK Independence Party (Ukip).

Brexit has been one of the most divisive subjects in British politics in decades. Getty
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Starmer has made the most pro-Leave declaration imaginable from a politician who always valued Britain’s former place in the EU

His senior colleagues have for some time observed an unwritten rule to avoid open criticism of Brexit. Yet it is difficult to think of any senior politician who has undergone such a dramatic conversion, whether the benefiting cause is a lost one or an idea that may yet recover after languishing in intensive care.

The simple explanation lies in Mr Starmer’s pursuit of power. Betraying the caution of a lawyer who formerly headed Britain’s criminal prosecution service, he is unconvinced that Labour’s lead will necessarily translate into a strong parliamentary majority in a general election up to two years away.

He calculates that he still needs to win back so-called “red wall” seats, once rock-solid Labour constituencies in the English north and midlands that switched to the Conservatives in 2019, helping Boris Johnson to victory on the strength of his “getting Brexit done” boasts. A working-class vote that saw no benefit in EU membership then, and in any case suspects Labour of being soft on immigration, was quick to embrace Leave and Mr Johnson; it will be slow to rediscover its traditional allegiance.

Paradoxically, the Tory government is seen as hopelessly unfit to resolve the problem - wildly exaggerated - of “small boats” migration across the English Channel. But the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Mr Sunak’s home secretary (interior minister) Suella Braverman, like the prime minister of Indian origin, plays well to a xenophobic gallery.

It is an electoral catchment area that remains impervious to ample data showing immigration to be broadly beneficial to Britain, both economically and culturally. Nor does it fully appreciate that much of business and the public services need more, not fewer, employees from overseas. If low-wage Britons never felt EU membership did them any good – despite the generous grants from Brussels that the UK government has failed to replace – theirs is one area of Brexit support that still resists all the economic analysis highlighting its negative consequences.

By ruling out a return to freedom of movement, Mr Starmer is re-courting that newly volatile red wall vote. It alarms many others among Labour’s natural supporters, who cherish the same pro-European philosophy he oozed before electoral ambition became more important. But he presumably feels sure sufficient of them will stick with him, content finally to drive the Tories out of power.

And by choosing, as the platform for his declaration, a rightwing newspaper, The Mail on Sunday, he is also reaching out to Conservative voters disillusioned with a 12-year run in office muddied by sleaze, much economy of truth and calamitous budgetary incompetence.

Some Starmer loyalists persuade themselves he is playing a canny long game, protecting against the fall-out of a blistering rightwing media reaction to any hint that he would dishonour the referendum result

They acknowledge that acquiescence in Brexit – advocacy even - must remain Labour policy in 2024 since the Tories and rightwing media would tear him apart if he went back on the forthright statement he has now made.

A typical tweet from this camp presents a scenario, four or five years from then, when Starmer, hypothetically calls an election seeking a second term as prime minister. He announces that having tried all feasible ways of “making Brexit work”, he has concluded that it cannot be done and wishes to apply once again for UK membership of the EU.

If this prediction were to prove accurate, it would bring belated reward for a bold gamble that pre-supposes success at not one but successive general elections.

The counter view is that Brexit is such a mess that the Tories will sooner or later be punished for clinging to it as a drowning man might clutch a flimsy reed – and punished again for the disastrous mini-budget for which Liz Truss’s mercifully short tenure at 10 Downing Street will be remembered.

The scathingly anti-Brexit commentator William Keegan wrote in his column in The Observer newspaper that Britain had regained the “sick man of Europe” stigma it managed to shrug off after joining the bloc. Without minimising the economic effects of war in Ukraine and the Covid pandemic, he identified Brexit as the key reason for Britain’s economy faring the worst of G20 countries.

Probably as significant as the red wall are Northern Ireland and Scotland. Both voted firmly against Brexit. Campaigning on a pro-Brexit ticket, Labour will struggle to win back seats lost to Scottish nationalists. Northern Ireland has a steadily growing Catholic population with little or no affection for the union with Great Britain and much reason to look fondly towards Europe.

Mr Starmer has given himself a boxful of eggs to juggle. He will need to take extraordinary care to stop them crashing to the floor, condemning Labour to an electoral failure seized from the jaws of a triumph that even many dispirited Tory MPs see as a racing certainty.

Published: December 04, 2022, 10:18 AM