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16 January 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:19pm

Keir Starmer discusses foreign policy and conversations with Barack Obama

The Labour leader spoke to the New Statesman at the Fabian Society conference about foreign and domestic policy.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer has said that the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard did “the honourable thing, the right thing” in stepping down from his post, but insisted that “the decision to step down was his decision” amid speculation that the Labour leader had spoken to Leonard last week encouraging him to go. 

Speaking to the New Statesman at the Fabian Society new year conference, the Labour leader said that he and the Scottish Labour leader speak “all the time” and their offices are in contact “every day”, when asked if they had a conversation ahead of his resignation. Starmer’s comments come as Scottish Labour announces a timetable for replacing Leonard as leader, with a new leader to be in place by Saturday 27 February.

After delivering his first major foreign policy speech as Labour leader, Starmer answered questions on a range of issues, from the strategy in Scotland to Brexit.

On the US election and Labour strategy

“I’m anti-Trump but I’m pro-American. And I’m incredibly optimistic about the new relationship we can build with President Biden,” Starmer said in his first extended comments on foreign affairs since his election as Labour leader, in which he argued that “Britain is at is strongest” when it is “the bridge between the US and the rest of Europe”. 

He also criticised Boris Johnson’s record on foreign affairs, accusing the Prime Minister of “spending the last few years cosying up to people who don’t have Britain’s interests at heart and courting the idea that he is Britain’s Trump”. The Labour leader also took aim at Michael Gove for visiting Donald Trump at Trump Tower.

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Starmer said there has been a lot of contact between his team and Joe Biden’s team, and Lisa Nandy has also been in contact, although given the coronavirus regulations he and Nandy are only able to attend the inauguration “in spirit”. He said they are learning a lot from Biden’s approach towards the US election, namely the need to “know your coalition” and use “values-driven” campaigning to bring diverse groups of people together to win.

He added: “I spoke to President Obama over the summer about the way they were approaching the campaign, and that was a very insightful conversation.”

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On Brexit

Starmer told the Fabian Society audience that “we have left the EU… but we’ll always be European.”

Labour will inherit the Brexit deal if it wins in 2024, he said, so “the mindset has to be one of making that deal work”, adding that he doesn’t see the case for rejoining the EU at the moment. He called for a “a close economic relationship [with the EU], rooted in our values, based on high standards and with protections for businesses, for working people and the environment”, and attacked Johnson’s government’s plans to make changes to workers’ rights in the wake of Brexit.

On the strategy in Scotland

“There’s no route to a majority” without Labour wins in Scotland, Starmer acknowledged. He said that the key is moving the argument away from “independence versus the status quo”. He said that, across the UK, people tell him “decisions about me should be taken closer to me”, which is why Labour has set up a constitutional convention.

On deleted police records

“This is a really serious situation”, Starmer said of reports of hundreds of thousands of deleted police records from across the UK, emphasising his concern about the impact the loss will have on ongoing criminal investigations. 

He called on Priti Patel to come to the House of Commons on Monday to answer questions on the issue and “take responsibility”.

On coronavirus and being a responsible opposition

Starmer admitted that getting a balance between holding the government to account and being constructive in a time of crisis is a “daily challenge”. He said he is aware of different opinions on his approach, because people tell him so regularly, but pointed to areas like test and trace and PPE in care homes where Labour has pushed the government particularly strongly.