On Christmas Eve, 2020, Keir Starmer faced a choice. Vote for the poor Brexit deal Boris Johnson had managed to get at the last moment or refuse to play ball and vote it down. He chose the former. Ever since, Labour have mostly been silent on Brexit, hoping the issue would fade into the distance. Yet somehow, it’s like a wound they can’t help but pick at ineffectively.
On March 3, 2021, in his response to the chancellor’s budget, Starmer couldn’t resist, even mentioning the B-word straight out. ‘And instead of putting blind faith in freeports, the Chancellor would be better served making sure the Government’s Brexit deal actually works for Britain’s manufacturers, who now face more red-tape when they were promised less.’ Not a bad jab at the Brexit deal – the one Starmer had whipped his MPs to vote for, let us not forget.
An address of the issue of Britain’s departure from the EU, and more importantly, the terms and conditions under which that took place, did not emerge from the leader of the opposition’s mouth again until the end of March, on the campaign trail in Hartlepool, where the vote to Leave in 2016 was overwhelming.
‘The referendum was five years ago now. We have left the EU. There is no case for rejoining. We want to make our exit a success. We want the deal to work, we are asking how we make the UK a great success under whatever trading arrangements we make with the EU and the wider world.’
So, in the same month, Starmer criticised the EU deal, saying it was bad for British manufacturers, and then later said “We want the deal to work’. To be fair to the leader of the opposition, the two statements aren’t strictly contradictory – yet they seem consistent with a long line of Labour takes on Brexit being slithery and constructed to be heard in different ways by different audiences.
To add further confusion to all of this, Rachel Reeves, who currently shadows Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office brief but is rumoured to be headed for bigger things in the near future, said yesterday that, ‘the Conservatives seem disturbingly relaxed at watching a significant number of British businesses struggle with red tape or lost orders and having turned their back on having an industrial strategy, ministers are clueless about the future.’
Adding all this up, I can’t really tell if a Labour government would be fine with the deal we have with the EU as is or would seek to change it. And I think this matters, not just in a practical sense but in a political one as well. Labour risk sounding like they want to undo the deal and possibly even Brexit to Leavers, while sounding like they wouldn’t change anything about the deal whatsoever to Remainers. In other words, Labour will continue to suffer the fallout from Brexit much more than the Tories, which is a faintly ridiculous place to keep finding themselves in.
Labour seems to want Brexit to go away but when it doesn’t quite do that, they then issue these ineffective statements about it. They should either ignore it altogether or construct a coherent narrative about what a Labour government would be doing differently. It’s not a lot to ask, is it?
Quick note at the close here to thank everyone who checked out my last book, “Politics is Murder”, allowing it to sell enough copies that I have a new book coming out in the autumn (publishing dates are still being decided) which will be entitled “The Patient”. More about that in the weeks to come – in the meantime, if you haven’t checked it out already, here’s the last book: