As Keir Starmer responded to the government’s Article 50 bill, he bore the sorrowful tone of a man addressing a wake. “For the Labour Party it is a very difficult bill,” the shadow Brexit secretary conceded, seeking refuge in candour. The opposition faces a uniquely painful conundrum. Almost all of its MPs and two-thirds of its voters backed Remain but most of its constituencies voted Leave. Labour simultaneously represents some of the most europhile seats in the country and some of the most europhobic. Unlike Ukip and the Liberal Democrats, the opposition is too large to champion one side alone.
Shadow ministers have already resigned in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to whip MPs in favour of triggering Article 50 (an entirely predictable act in view of his lifelong euroscepticism). But though Starmer represents Holborn and St Pancras, one of the most pro-Remain seats in the country, he made the case for accepting Brexit with brutal logic. “Yes, technically the referendum is not legally binding,” he noted. “But the result was not technical; it was deeply political and, politically, the notion that the referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform parliament holds no water.”
Indeed, polls show that Leavers have been joined by fair-minded Remainers in backing Brexit. There is presently no public desire to thwart withdrawal. Starmer continued: “Although we are fiercely internationalist and fiercely pro-European, we are in the Labour party above all democrats. Had the outcome been remain, we would have expected the result to have been honoured – and that cuts both ways.”
Starmer’s battle is not over whether the UK leaves the EU but how it does so. Labour has tabled amendments demanding “full tariff and impediment free access to the Single Market”, the protection of workers’ rights and guaranteed legal rights for EU nationals living in Britain. Starmer’s stated ambition is not to speak for the 52 per cent or the 48 per cent but “the 100 per cent”. Yet the risk remains that in seeking to speak for all, Labour speaks for none. It risks losing Remain voters to the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens, Leave voters to Ukip (in protest at its non-opposition to free movement) and both to the Tories. A popular and competent leader, Labour MPs lament, could build a bridge between the two sides. But Corbyn, they believe, is incapable of doing so.
The increasing exasperation expressed with the leader (even by the Pravda-esque Canary) has led to growing discussion of potential successors. At the next Labour leadership election, Brexit, which will define British politics for a decade or more, will be a central issue. Clive Lewis, the ambitious and energetic shadow business secretary, could yet aid his cause by voting against Article 50. Starmer, another prospective leader, will hope for more than one reason that he does not.
It was Labour, not the Conservatives, that was the original eurosceptic party in British politics. After the 1975 referendum split Harold Wilson’s government, Michael Foot backed EEC withdrawal just six years later. It was Jacques Delors’s 1988 address to the Trades Unions Congress that led Labour to embrace Europe as a counterweight to Thatcherism (and the Tories to concurrently shun it). Today, as he drew the curtain on decades of EU support, Starmer appealed for a “good deal less of the gloating from those who voted to Leave”. But as Labour grapples with its Brexit plight, his wish is unlikely to be granted.