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27 September 2021updated 18 Oct 2021 11:23am

Keir Starmer must finally start attacking the government over Brexit

By refusing to spell out the costs of Brexit, the Labour leader is giving Tory ministers a free pass on their weakest ground.

By Martin Fletcher

A group of swivel-eyed Tory zealots recently dined at the Carlton Club to celebrate their defeat of Theresa May’s “soft Brexit” withdrawal plan – one that would have kept the UK within the EU’s single market and customs union. The MPs congratulated each other for “staying strong”, posed for a group photograph, and, reportedly, awarded themselves mementoes decorated with tiny Spartan helmets – Spartans being what they call themselves.

How obscene. How grotesque. Even as these self-styled patriots, these fiddling Neros, enjoyed their trout salad, lamb and Chilean (not French) wine, the UK was rapidly descending into all-out chaos thanks, in large part, to the ultra-hard Brexit that they demanded and Boris Johnson duly delivered.

Acute labour shortages caused primarily by the end of free movement, disrupted supply chains caused by the UK’s abrupt departure from the world’s biggest free trade area, a whole new layer of red tape that makes the bureaucracy of Brussels look positively innocuous, and rapidly rising prices herald a genuinely bleak “autumn of adversity”.

Already Britain is half-paralysed by petrol shortages because so many European lorry drivers have left (a Zimbabwean friend visiting the UK tells me he feels quite at home. He will feel even more so when soldiers appear on the streets). 

Gas prices are soaring. The country is running out of CO2 to keep food fresh. Supermarkets have empty shelves. We can’t get enough chickens, blood test vials, building materials or chemicals for sewage treatment works. We no longer have enough carers, chemotherapy deliverers, construction workers, poultry pluckers, farm labourers or pub and restaurant staff. A dearth of turkeys, toys and trees is forecast for Christmas.

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Hard-line Brexiteers argue that the answer to labour shortages is to pay British workers more. That may be, but it would fuel inflation just as the government is preparing to raise taxes to their highest level in 70 years, end the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit and terminate – on 30 September – the furlough programme. A further 800,000 people may be pushed into poverty – a third of them children. So much for “levelling up”.  

So much, also, for “taking back control”. Or for the “sunlit uplands” that the Brexiteers promised us as they dismissed all caution as “Project Fear”. Or for Johnson’s bold predictions that post-Brexit Britain would rise “like some slumbering giant… and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity”; that it would “take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion” of free trade.

Even as the Spartans feasted, President Biden ruled out the swift US-UK trade deal that Johnson had promised, and warned the Prime Minister not to jeopardise Northern Ireland’s fragile peace by reneging on the protocol he so cynically signed in order to “get Brexit done”.

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Indeed under this uniquely clueless and incompetent government the crises, reversals and U-turns come so thick and fast each is rapidly eclipsed and forgotten – a bit like the scandals that beset President Donald Trump. Scarcely a month ago we were bemoaning our humiliating and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, but who remembers that now? Or the abandonment of the government’s proposed new planning regime? Or Matt Hancock’s disgrace?

All of which would present the opposition with a gaping open goal were Labour not so spectacularly and exasperatingly incapable of putting the ball in the net. Indeed it is stuck in its own muddy goalmouth, at the far end of the pitch, with Keir Starmer and his colleagues seemingly determined to score own goals.

Given its first opportunity to court the public after 18 months of Covid, what does the party do? It spends its conference feuding over election rules, trans rights, nationalisation, income tax and whether it is acceptable to call the Tories scum. “State ownership fans new Labour energy row,” the Guardian proclaimed on its front page. “Scum insult and tax rises split Labour leadership,” the Times declared. 

Albert Einstein allegedly once said (but almost certainly did not) that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Having failed to defeat the Conservatives for 16 years, having won just three of the past 11 general elections (all under Tony Blair), and having crashed to its worst defeat since 1935 in 2019, you would think the party might have come to its senses by now, but it manifestly has not.

As things stand, and notwithstanding that old saw about oppositions not winning elections but governments losing them, Labour stands not the slightest chance of gaining the 128 seats it needs to win the next election. Starmer’s only hope now is to forget focus groups, opinion polls and the demands of his party activists and to lead by conviction; to abandon his present timidity and pursue boldly and openly what he has long been seeking to do by stealth. 

That means defying the Corbynista rump and moving decisively to the centre. This is a conservative country, with a small “c”, and that is the only way Labour can win or ever has done.

It means recognising that he cannot outbid Johnson for Labour’s lost “Red Wall” voters. He would do better to let them discover Johnson’s duplicity for themselves, and in the meantime court the millions of moderate voters – many of them Conservatives – who presently feel utterly disenfranchised. 

It means adopting some form of electoral pact – official or unofficial – with the Liberal Democrats and Greens, because a split progressive opposition cannot possibly hope to defeat the Tories, and embracing electoral reform to reinvigorate our democracy.

It also means talking about that great unmentionable – Brexit. Incredibly, Starmer cited the single greatest political, economic and social upheaval this country has experienced in living memory just five times in the 12,000-word essay on the party’s future that he published this month. He is reluctant to open old wounds, or to offend Brexit voters in Red Wall constituencies, but it is perfectly legitimate for him to denounce the disastrous consequences of Brexit and Johnson’s botched deals (as he once solemnly promised to do) without calling for a second referendum. 

Unless Starmer starts attacking the government on Brexit he is giving it a free pass on its weakest ground. He is leaving millions of Brexit victims voiceless – fishermen, farmers, food and drink producers, hauliers, small businesses, the financial services industry, artists, musicians, students, travellers, Brits resident in Europe and Europeans resident here. And now is surely the time, as Brexit’s calamitous consequences become painfully apparent and the government can no longer use Covid as an excuse.

As former cabinet minister Hilary Benn argued yesterday, people can “see what is happening in front of their eyes – the queues, the shortages”. Labour should promise to “fix the mess” caused by Brexit and argue for “a new relationship with the EU”. And, Benn might have added, spoil the Spartans’ disgraceful party.