8 December 2020

On Brexit, Keir Starmer is running against his own record


No Labour leader can easily escape his record. This is true of all the holders of that office. Even Tony Blair had to contend with observations (that did him no political harm, ultimately) that he had campaigned, as a Labour candidate in 1983, for a manifesto committing a Labour government to withdrawing from the EEC and to unilateral nuclear disarmament.

The electorate, which is always more sensible and rational than many observers give it credit for, understood the circumstances under which Blair fought that election and allowed him the space to shape his own policies. A degree of opportunistic cynicism is hardly a fatal flaw in any politician, they rightly concluded.

Which brings us to Keir Starmer. His challenge is that he wants to move his party further away from the positions adopted by his predecessor than any newly-elected Labour leader has ever needed to. And he wants to do it in a very short space of time. Again the history books are informative. Blair took over from John Smith, a trusted moderate from the party’s right wing; moving the party to a new moderate position was, for Blair and for his party, a piece of cake.

We’re already very familiar (indeed far too familiar) with Starmer’s troubles over the party’s institutionalised anti-Semitism – the most toxic of legacies bequeathed to him by Jeremy Corbyn. But now Brexit is rearing its head again and Starmer needs not only to disavow his former leader’s record on the subject, but his own. And that’s the tricky part.

By the time Blair took over from Smith in 1994, Michael Foot’s disastrous leadership was 11 years in the past. Voters’ memories of the Corbyn era, however, will take some time to fade, which is, to say the least, unhelpful to Starmer. Even more unhelpful is the fact that Labour’s chaotic and inconsistent approach to Brexit, and to the Government’s increasing inability to deliver an EU withdrawal deal, was manufactured in large part by Starmer himself. He is blamed by many on the hard left – and by others who consider themselves to be in the party’s mainstream – for the disastrous second referendum policy that allowed Boris Johnson to accuse the party of disrespecting the 2016 referendum result and, crucially, those key Labour voters who had supported Leave.

Now, with either a last minute deal about to be agreed, or a no-deal exit confirmed, the spotlight is about to turn once more on Labour and its response to the latest Brexit drama.

How will Starmer instruct his MPs to vote if Johnson returns from Brussels later this week with a surprise deal? When Theresa May negotiated her ill-fated withdrawal deal with the Northern Irish backstop attached, Labour conspired to reject it, even though it represented as close to a “soft” Brexit as they were ever going to get. Not only that, but it had been agreed and approved by the EU27, with whom Labour claimed to be in solidarity – right up until the point where the deal was rejected for a third time and a no-deal Brexit became a real possibility.

There are those in Labour’s ranks (and in this I include Blair’s former communications director, Alastair Campbell, despite the fact that he’s been expelled from the party) who insist that if the party is to escape the blame for whatever horrors await a post-EU UK, it must not support a deal. In other words it should abstain.

There is some merit in this idea, but there are serious dangers within it for Starmer personally. He has already been severely criticised for telling his MPs to abstain on the last vote on Covid restrictions, and although he made a lucid case for that course of action, the danger is that Johnson’s jibes about his transformation “from Captain Hindsight to General Indecision” will hit home. The major opposition party appearing not to hold a view on the greatest policy challenge of the day presents a major, possibly incurable, headache for the party’s army of spin doctors.

And the problem with pulling the same trick over a Brexit deal is that this would be seen as confirming Johnson’s criticism, that at this crucial juncture for the country, facing what is arguably an even bigger challenge than the pandemic, Labour has copped out again. Will Starmer start to form opinions once he is in Downing Street, perhaps? You can imagine such a question being asked by gleeful opponents.

But the biggest problem with Labour abstention is the reminder it would represent of Starmer’s previous positions (the plural is deliberate) on Brexit. Whether you’re a Remainer or a Leaver, it is beyond doubt that Labour’s commitment to a second referendum “with Remain on the ballot paper” fatally undermined the party’s general election campaign. It may not have been the party’s greatest weakness, but it was in the top three. Having promised to respect the 2016 referendum, having voted to trigger Article 50 way back in March 2017, having voted three times against the only withdrawal deal available and then having offered Remainers a chance to reverse the 2016 decision in a re-run referendum, Starmer needs to think very carefully indeed, not just about the right thing to do for the country but how his actions will be seen in the light of his past record.

Campbell’s assertion that if Labour supports the Brexit deal, it will be forced to share the blame for any downside of being outside the EU, is a legitimate concern. But abstaining would not stop the deal being approved by Parliament, and it would reinforce voters’ (correct but damaging) impression that Labour is only half-heartedly and grudgingly marching towards the EU exit gates. In a post-EU world, would you rather have in charge a party that actually believes in the country’s current course, or one that is behaving like a sullen teenager forced to attend an elderly relative’s birthday party?

For Starmer, this decision is about his country and his party and what’s best for them both. But given his brief record on the front bench, supporting Corbyn, campaigning to make him prime minister while seeking to overturn the 2016 referendum, it is also about him, his character and his principles. It’s a tough decision and he may dislike the course he must take. But if he makes the wrong call – again – he will end up as a slightly less prominent footnote than Michael Foot, or any of those other Labour leaders who never made it to Number 10.

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.