Tony Blair did not choose between Europe and America. He went to war alongside George W Bush while exploring joining the euro and harbouring ambitions to become the European Council president. Keir Starmer is looking to take a similar path.
He has been cultivating a relationship with Washington DC – particularly with the Democrats – for years. As director of public prosecutions at the Crown Prosecution Service, Starmer worked closely with the Obama administration, particularly the attorney general, Eric Holder. We know that Starmer and David Lammy – who has strong contacts in Washington DC – met Barack Obama for two hours in 2021. He is also in contact with officials in Joe Biden’s administration. But whether these relationships benefit Starmer as prime minister will depend on the result of next year’s presidential election.
His recent trips to The Hague, Montreal and Paris presage a premiership dominated by foreign policy. Once prime ministers, and presidents for that matter, take office, they often find themselves become consumed by foreign policy, even if their election was based on domestic issues. This is partly the reason why Rachel Reeves’s influence over domestic policy will probably grow, not diminish if Labour gets into government.
[See also: What’s behind Labour’s new Brexit position?]
Starmer has again confirmed to the Financial Times that Labour would seek to negotiate an update to Boris Johnson’s trade agreement with the EU. He also told Politico: “I feel very strongly that since Brexit, there’s been a sense that we’ve not just exited the EU, that we’ve somehow turned our back on the world and wherever you go people feel almost the absence of the UK, once a leading voice, now rarely consulted.”
I think some Ukrainians and Hong Kongers might disagree but the general thrust, that Brexit delivered a serious blow to Britain’s international reputation, is correct. Sunak has done some work to redress that, particularly with the EU through the Windsor framework – on trade with Europe in Northern Ireland. But diplomacy does not end; there will always be more to discuss with the Europeans. Agreeing deals with the bloc on security, migration and crime would likely consume a significant chunk of Labour’s time in office. It was a vote of confidence in Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary, that he also acquired the trade role (to mirror the government) in the reshuffle. Expect him to play a leading role in any future negotiations.
But the more surprising comments from Starmer over the weekend relate to America. He told Politico regarding the US election: “It’s clear what my desired outcome would be, but the desired outcome may yield to a different outcome.” That is a risky indictment of a possible future Trump presidency. No comment is small enough for Donald Trump to forget. This might be something Starmer’s team comes to regret once in office.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.