Macron's meeting with Starmer gives the game away

A UK opposition leader connecting with the French President and other top world leaders denotes a certain shift in power

Keir Starmer gives an interview at a summit of centre-left leaders in Montreal, Canada. The UK Labour leader's planned meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron has been preceded by several other high-profile international visits. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

Elysee Palace aides describe the upcoming visit of British Labour party leader Keir Starmer, to meet French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, as an unremarkable part of the latter’s political contacts.

In fact, they said it is as normal as Mr Macron’s meeting last weekend with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the fringes of the G20 summit in New Delhi. By linking the two as equal, the game was given away.

There is nothing normal or expected about a UK opposition leader meeting the French president or most top world leaders. What are we to take away from it then?

First, the rarity factor decrees its own significance. Far more importantly, it denotes a certain shift in power. The coming man always has a certain pull factor by itself.

Emmanuel Macron's coming meeting with the UK's main opposition leader does not bode well for Rishi Sunak. Photo: Kin Cheung

Leaving aside Mr Starmer’s position, it will not be a good sign for Mr Sunak. There is an element of the lame duck about him in the wake of this, however spokesmen and diplomats may play it down.

With tens of thousands of migrants crossing the English Channel in the most inhumane conditions, the governments of France and the UK need to be working together. From its perspective, London needs to be extracting certain French commitments to action.

At its most ambitious, the British government would be asking the French to join it in a politically risky new resettlement regime that would cause some of those seeking to enter the UK to rethink. Mr Macron would take some political risks to end an unjust human smuggling situation that should be intolerable.

Shifting the focus back to Mr Starmer, these are exactly the things he has put on his agenda as he builds up to the Macron meeting.

It is extraordinary. A year or less away from the next election, who is Mr Macron most likely to partner up with? Mr Sunak has a double-digit deficit in the polls. Mr Starmer could go on to convert his advantage to a general election win.

There are some caveats. The government has a majority of 80, and swings to undo that advantage are greater than any achieved by Tony Blair, the greatest Labour vote winner.

To show he is serious about government, Mr Starmer has both been seen in public with Mr Blair and appointed heavyweights from the last Labour governments in his shadow cabinet.

A year or less away from the next election, who is Mr Macron most likely to partner up with?

Last week, the Labour leader went on a tour of the legal institutions in The Hague to show that he had a grip on the tools needed to tackle the migration crisis.

By his side was Yvette Cooper, once a respected cabinet minister in the Labour governments, and now his interior spokeswoman. The pictures of the pair walking side-by-side showed resolve and confidence in their approach.

Mr Starmer then flew on to Canada where he attended a centre-left leaders conference – mainly of former leaders – but usefully hosted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The backdrop is therefore well set to meet the triangulating French leader who claims to be neither left or right. Mr Starmer’s security agenda on migrants is likely to suit Mr Macron as it comes at a time when European leaders are being pressed for more action on the issue.

Last week saw angry words exchanged between Rome and Berlin. Germany warned it would not take resettled migrants from Italy.

The issue is that Italy is not registering all the people arriving on its shores as refugees. The Italians are under pressure from the rising numbers fleeing North Africa, with more than 5,000 arriving on the island of Lampedusa on one day alone.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is on Mr Sunak’s side of the divide. The British leader wants to destroy the business model of the people smuggler networks.

A senior police official briefed journalists last week that a policy of returns – such as the British agreement to send arrived migrants to Rwanda – was a vital component of controlling the numbers trying to enter the UK. That is not something that France has shown any interest in, but Italy would like to move in that direction.

Although Britain has left the EU, the shared issue of migration is one area that is pushing the two sides together. A good relationship between Paris and London is vital for this.

Trade-offs will be needed. Mr Starmer has already taken hostile headlines about how the UK would have to accept the European-style redistribution of asylum seekers for resettlement.

Whether Mr Macron can maintain his careful balancing act of relative inactivity that allows the tens of thousands to leave via the north coast remains to be seen. The meeting with Mr Starmer is throwing a spotlight on something he prefers to ignore.

In that, there may be a dividend for Mr Sunak. After all, he chose to make “stop the boats” his top political slogan when he came to office a year ago.

That battleground has now been joined in Mr Starmer in a way that has boosted his domestic and international standing. But with a vital electorate for nationalistic leaders to grab, it is also a position that could damage the Labour march to office.

At the end of the day, the Elysee Palace meeting is likely to figure in the historian’s judgements on how the next UK election was won. Or lost.

Published: September 18, 2023, 5:00 AM
Updated: September 19, 2023, 7:51 AM