Sometimes in politics conundrums arise to which there are no right answers. Thus, in January, Keir Starmer had to decide whether Labour should vote for Boris Johnson’s flawed and limited Brexit deal, knowing the only alternative was no deal. To the dismay of Labour’s most ardent Remainers he took the brave decision to do so, but with this warning to the Prime Minister: “We will hold you to account for it. Every second you’re in power. For the promises you have made. And the promises you break.”
The problem is that far from holding Johnson to account, Starmer appears to have taken a Trappist vow of silence on anything remotely connected to Brexit. He has failed to champion the thousands of businesses whose exports to the EU have encountered a labyrinth of bureaucracy and regulation far worse than that from which post-Brexit Britain had supposedly escaped – businesses that may now, irony of ironies, have to move their operations to the EU to survive.
He has failed to speak out for the financial services industry which, for all its faults, accounts for 7 per cent of British GDP but was offered no protection whatsoever by Johnson’s deal. As a result, the City is losing business and well-paid jobs to Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin.
He has failed to voice the anger of artists and musicians who can no longer perform in Europe without visas and work permits; of the meat and seafood industries whose products perish at ports before they can reach their former markets in the EU; of the giant British auto industry and other manufacturers whose supplies of components and raw materials have been severely disrupted; of a diverse host of others – hauliers, fashionistas, silk sellers, cheese exporters, glass eel farmers – whose livelihoods have been wrecked by Brexit.
He has failed to expose the hollowness of this government’s promises of “frictionless trade”, of a “pent-up tidal wave of investment” flowing into the UK, of a Britain that will “prosper mightily”, of a borderless Irish Sea, of a “stronger Union” and, of course, of a Brexit bonanza of £350m a week for the NHS.
Britain may have regained its precious sovereignty, but as the Financial Times points out a horticulturalist in Bedford can no longer ship hyacinth bulbs to Ballymena without giving the EU proof of where they’re going, and a dog owner can no longer take his pet from Birmingham to Belfast without £200 of vet checks.
Starmer has through his silence allowed the government to hide the immense damage of its Brexit deal behind the even greater economic damage of the Covid-19 pandemic. He has failed to challenge ministers’ claims that these are just “teething problems” or “bumps in the road” or – as Dominic Raab suggested yesterday – that we should take a “ten-year view” of the present problems faced by businesses.
On the contrary, they are lasting structural problems embedded in the deal that Johnson negotiated, and which the government gave our newly sovereign parliament just one solitary day to consider and approve (the European Parliament, by contrast, is still scrutinising the deal). And those problems will only get worse as various grace periods expire, and when travel for work and holidays eventually resumes.
Starmer’s motives are obvious. He wants to leave behind the bitter divisions of Brexit, and to win back those Brexit-supporting voters of “Red Wall” constituencies in the north and Midlands whose intense dislike of Jeremy Corbyn handed Johnson victory in the 2019 general election.
His goals are understandable, but his strategy is surely mistaken. Nobody, not even the most ardent Remainer, is arguing that he should seek to reverse Brexit – only that he should focus attention on the far-reaching consequences of the UK’s profound and abrupt change of geopolitical course.
He should hold this reckless government to account for the immense gamble it took with Britain’s future and its insistence on the hardest of hard Brexits. He should demand that it sets out a new national economic strategy to replace the one it has just jettisoned – namely, making Britain a magnet for foreign investors seeking access to the single market. He should press it to explain Britain’s role in the world now it has ceased to be a bridge between the US and EU; how it intends to repair our soured relations with the vast political and trading bloc across the Channel; and how it will ensure that Brexit does not undermine our efforts to counter international crime and terrorism.
Treating Brexit as a great unmentionable will not win back Red Wall voters, though pointing out the many ways in which it hurts their interests might. But Starmer’s silence will certainly disappoint millions of Remain-supporting centrist voters – voters who might otherwise be tempted to switch to Starmer’s new-look Labour from a right-wing Conservative Party or the seemingly-moribund Liberal Democrats.
In general I think Starmer has done a good job in exceptionally difficult circumstances during his first year as Labour’s leader. He has put the party’s dreadful election defeat behind it. He has largely sidelined the Corbynistas. He has established himself as a substantial figure of unimpeachable honesty and integrity, in sharp contrast to Johnson. In the midst of a national crisis he has been restrained and constructive in his criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic, and he has wisely refrained from engaging in unwinnable culture wars.
But on the crucial issue of Johnson’s Brexit deal and its consequences he has gone AWOL. He has let the government off the hook. He has been complicit in its lies and dissembling. He needs to do what is right, not expedient. He must do what leaders do, which is lead. He could start by using his keynote speech on the economy this Thursday to point out that Johnson has kept just one of his Brexit pledges. He promised to “fuck business” and he has.