What is Keir Starmer up to over a Brexit extension?

Business is desperate for an extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit – but the leader of the opposition is keeping his counsel for now.

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Nobody, outside the ranks of Britain’s Brexiteer ultras, thinks that ending our transition out of the European Union’s single market and customs union without having secured some kind of trade deal is a good idea. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that business – whether we’re talking about outfits like the CBI or individual firms such as Nissan – is beginning to panic about the possibility.

The obvious way for the government to calm these nerves, especially since so little progress seems to have been made so far in negotiations with Brussels, would be to agree an extension with the EU. But this presents it with two problems.

First, any extension has to be agreed by the end of this month. The idea that it can easily be done at a later date should talks over the summer fail to break the logjam is, as the Institute for Government clearly shows in its latest report, for the birds. It’s pretty much now or never.

Second, when the government passed the Withdrawal Act earlier this year, it decided – both to reassure Leavers and to persuade the EU it was prepared to play hardball – to make it difficult, if not impossible, to agree an extension without passing primary legislation.  Obliging it to perform a volte-face would therefore require an enormous amount of pressure.

And yet no such pressure is forthcoming – not at least from Her Majesty’s Opposition. The Mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, may have written to the Prime Minister calling on him, in terms, to agree an extension. But the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has conspicuously not chosen to join him. 

In so doing, Starmer seems determined to stick with the strategy that first became apparent in early May, when, after he was asked by LBC’s Nick Ferrari whether he would ‘press pause’, he simply reminded listeners that ‘the government says it's going to get [a deal] done by the end of the year. So let's see how they get on.’ Ferrari tackled Starmer again on the issue during the first Call Keir show; but, as well as reiterating that ‘the Leave-Remain divide is over’, he resolutely refused to call for an extension to transition.

In some respects, Starmer’s seeming lack of urgency is surprising – shocking even. This, after all, is the man who thought Brexit was such a bad idea that, with the help of Labour’s overwhelmingly Europhile membership, he dragged a clearly reluctant Jeremy Corbyn sullenly towards a second referendum. And this is a politician who, while urging Remainers to accept that the UK has now left the EU, is fully aware of the severe damage and disruption that leaving it without a trade deal could do – especially on top of the economic destruction wrought by Covid-19.

Surely, then, Starmer should demanding Boris Johnson do everything in his power to minimise even the slightest risk of that happening – a demand that, logically anyway, should see him campaigning hard for an extension?

But Starmer is also a politician who, perhaps owing to his legal experience, thinks very carefully before he opens his mouth – someone who neither speaks nor holds his peace without good reason. And as soon as you start to think about it, there are plenty of good reasons for Starmer to keep schtum on the question of an extension.

Most obviously, what would calling for one gain? It’s not as if it’s likely to make it happen. For one thing, Johnson, Frost (and presumably Cummings) seem if anything to have doubled down lately on their promise not to ask for more time. For another, a government that’s already earned itself an embarrassing reputation for U-turning in response to pressure from the new leader of the opposition is even less likely to want to do so again – not on something this huge anyway.

Moreover, it’s not as if Starmer would, by calling for an extension, be putting himself at the head of a furious and fast-growing campaign for one on the part of the public or crucial pressure groups. True, there is a petition to extend out there. But, with fewer than 80,000 signatures, it hasn’t even reached the threshold for parliamentary debate and is a long, long way off the six million-plus garnered by last year’s petition to revoke article 50 and remain in the EU.

True, too, polling suggests a majority (albeit one made up mainly though not exclusively of Remain and non-Tory voters) for an extension in the face of Covid-19. But as always there’s a big difference between what people say they agree with when asked by a pollster and what they urgently, desperately want to happen.

It’s also noticeable that, while both individual firms and the organisations that represent businesses are very worried about leaving without a trade deal, they aren’t exactly clamouring for an extension either. Nor, it seems, are the trade unions – presumably because they don’t believe they’ll get one.

Assuming they’re right, and presuming their worst fears are realised and no trade deal can be done before December, the only advantage that would accrue to Starmer for having called for an extension now would be the right later on to say "I told you so" – never really the most persuasive argument in politics.

Meanwhile, Starmer would spend the next six months being labelled not just a Remoaner but someone who preferred to retain free movement rather than see the government bring in its much-trumpeted (and overwhelmingly popular) ‘Australian-style points based system.’

In the end, then, Starmer may well be wise to keep his counsel. There’s not much he can do to prevent the government pursuing the course it has set, and trying would only see him run into trouble. Sure, that course could end in tears – both for Britain and Boris Johnson. But, as a cynic might say, taking inspiration from a certain Monsieur Bonaparte, why on earth interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake?

Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.  The second edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, was published in September 2016 by Polity Press.

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