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23 June 2021

How Brexit changed us: Keir Starmer is the true architect of Labour’s post-Brexit misfortune

As the former shadow Brexit secretary who called the shots, Starmer has created his own luck – and played into the hands of the Brexiteers. 

By Matthew Elliott

The most common refrain I hear from people who voted Remain is that “Brexit isn’t as bad as I thought it would be”. And notwithstanding the debate on the Northern Ireland protocol, many now even say that “if the referendum was rerun today, I’d vote Leave”.

It’s easy to see why they think this way. During the referendum, the Stronger In campaign did their best to paint Leave campaigners as being little better than the British National Party. No matter how many spokespeople we fielded from Labour, the Green Party, or even (a few) Liberal Democrats, we were absurdly caricatured by opponents as a hard-right faction, which goes some way to explaining why the reaction to Leave’s victory in some quarters was so visceral.

Boris Johnson did more than anybody else to give swing voters the confidence to vote Leave. Which part of Johnson’s London mayoralty suggested that the Brexit he was championing would result in a break from Britain’s liberal tradition? Was it the fabulous 2012 Olympics that brought together communities across the country, or the immigration amnesty he commissioned a report on, or the Boris bikes?

As PM, Johnson has carried these liberal instincts into Downing Street as a self-styled “Brexity Hezza”. From the non-discriminatory immigration policy that treats all migrants from across the world equally, to his active intervention to level up the country and smash the north-south divide, Johnson is pursuing a domestic agenda that is uniting both Leavers and Remainers. The same is true of our international relations: he has used the G7 presidency to ensure that Big Tech and multinational companies pay a fair amount of tax, and he is leading the world to net zero through Cop26.

Little wonder, then, that his big tent approach is being rewarded by voters. The 80-seat majority he won in 2019, the Conservatives’ victory in the Hartlepool by-election in May and the party’s consistent double-digit poll leads demonstrate that he has transformed the British political landscape.

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Luck has certainly played a part. Brexiteers are fortunate that the Labour Party and other Remain supporters on the opposition benches didn’t back Theresa May’s Brexit in name only. Had they done so, the Tories would probably have split, Jeremy Corbyn would now be in No 10, Britain wouldn’t have left the EU and we would have had to rely on the EU’s vaccination programme as our escape route from Covid.

As the former shadow Brexit secretary who called the shots, Keir Starmer has created his own luck. I wonder if he realises that he is the true architect of Labour’s misfortune, not Corbyn?

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Matthew Elliott was chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign

This article is from our “How Brexit changed us” series, marking five years since the referendum.