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15 February 2022

Keir Starmer has undone his biggest mistake

The Labour leader is right to accept that rejoining the EU is politically unthinkable, whatever the economic case.

By Philip Collins

One of the smartest moves that Keir Starmer has made as Labour leader is to undo his biggest error as a shadow minister. This week, in Newcastle, Starmer said that “there is no case” for Britain rejoining the European Union. As shadow Brexit secretary under Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer led the ill-fated campaign to secure a second referendum on EU membership. All of which just goes to show that in politics, you can be wrong when you are right and right when you are wrong.

The key to this conundrum is that there is a missing word in Starmer’s formulation. There is an eminently good economic case for Britain being back in the EU. Brexit never really made any economic sense; even its advocates have given up on that one.

The evidence to this effect is now coming in. The Bank of England is forecasting UK economic growth of just 1.25 per cent in 2023 and 1 per cent in 2024. The Office for National Statistics reported last week that more than half of importers and exporters cite EU paperwork as a major irritant. The ONS also showed that the UK’s export of goods to the EU has fallen by £20bn compared with the last period of stable trade. Exports of clothing and footwear bound are down by almost 60 per cent from 2018. Vegetable exports are down 40 per cent.

The economic gain of Brexit was supposed to be, in the mythology of its advocates, liberation from unnecessary regulation. A Public Accounts Committee report on border delays carried very bad news. In a display of peevishness for which irony is not the word, the pro-Brexit Conservative MP for Dover, Natalie Elphicke, complained about lorries queuing at the side of the motorway waiting for regulatory clearance that used to be automatic. And all this is before we get to the continuing shambles of the Northern Ireland protocol and Britain’s diplomatic isolation in addressing the crisis in Ukraine.

Yet that doesn’t matter politically as much as we might think. The economic errors of Brexit were always hard to translate into political gain and they still are. Every time Brexit has been put to a vote — the referendum, endless occasions in parliament, the 2019 general election — the Leave side has won. It is one of the most successful political campaigns of recent memory. Though its lustre is fading with time and as the truth emerges, there is no political advantage to be gained yet in raising the issue and being annoyed about it.

This is difficult to accept. Brexit aroused animal passions on both sides. It was never solely about the EU, for anyone. Brexit was always a metaphor for a way of thinking, an approach to life, politics and everything. It was a way of saying, “I am a person like this and not a person like that.” It is therefore difficult to accept that it is advisable to forget about it for a while. But it really is. The politics of this decision are obvious.

The voters that Labour needs to win over have not yet concluded in sufficient number that their vote to leave the EU was a mistake. They are still less likely to attribute the economic travails of 2021 to a vote about something else five years ago. There is no political profit in returning to the issue. Indeed, a Labour Party that started fighting the Brexit war over again is exactly the Labour Party the Conservatives would love to fight. You can see that the Tories are desperate to engage in phoney wars from how badly the Tory party chairman, Oliver Dowden, soiled himself again this week (14 February) in a silly speech denouncing “woke” ideology to the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Rejoining the EU would be one such phoney war.

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There is no prospect of Britain rejoining the EU anytime soon. To that extent Starmer’s intervention is a mere statement of the obvious. Joining the EU is a long process and Britain would not be a credible applicant at the moment. It is by no means obvious that any government that demanded to rejoin could command a majority in a referendum and, without that likelihood, there is no particular reason for Brussels to take Britain seriously. Not that rejoining the EU would mean returning to the relationship from which we just departed. All the valuable opt-outs, such as from the Schengen Area, would no longer apply. There would be the small matter of the single currency to consider. It’s just not plausible at the moment.

“We have exited the EU and we are not going back,” said Starmer and he’s right. It might seem plausible for a government in the future — of any political colour — to rejoin the European single market or the customs union (if they will have us), though even that would be a protracted process. The British economy would have to slowly be aligned once more with the single market economies, legislation would have to be drafted and passed and then the application process completed.

There is no prospect of going further than this in the foreseeable future. There is no prospect of revived full membership in the political lifetime of anyone active today. The terms on offer would be impossible, even if British public opinion somehow shifted from hostility to neutrality. It would be far better, as Starmer argued, in a phrase that Jacob Rees-Mogg might have used, for Britain to “take advantage of the opportunities of Brexit”. The economically literate Remain voter might rationally retort that the opportunities of Brexit are somewhere between meagre and non-existent. In time this will become apparent and in time Brexit will cease to have any defining power in British politics. In time, but not yet.

[See also: Labour has the public on side – now it needs a story]

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