As a true believer in the UK staying in the EU and as a Labour member and recovering politician, I get asked a lot about why Labour – and Keir Starmer in particular – hasn’t been much more vocal on Brexit.
These questions are asked particularly at crunch moments, such as the deadline for asking for an extension to the transition period. The answer is simple and two-fold – it wouldn’t change the outcome of this year and it would damage Labour’s chances of winning an election and, through that, starting the process of restoring the UK’s reputation on the world stage.
To best understand Keir and the Labour Party’s position we need to look forward.
Boris Johnson has an 80-seat majority. It’s true that the majority looks more flaky than historical majorities of that size on issues such as China. But the one issue it is rock solid on is Brexit: any vestiges of openness on Brexit on his backbenches were lost when MPs were expelled from the Tory party and, subsequently, from Parliament late last year. That means there is no parliamentary mechanism for changing Johnson’s course – Johnson and Dominic Cummings have decided we are completing the transition period at the end of this year, ready or not. And whether they like it not they must now be made to own that decision.
So, if Labour can’t change the outcome why not at least highlight the alternative – on extension or on being pro-EU? To answer one question with another – why would you do exactly what your opponent wants you to do? The SNP, LibDems and Labour (in chronological order of decision making) tried that when they went for a general election at the end of last year, and it backfired badly – except perhaps for the SNP.
Johnson and Cummings are desperate for Labour to oppose their plan of ending the transition by 31 December 2020. They want to define themselves against an enemy as a way of portraying themselves as insurgents, as the voice of the people against a Westminster elite or the establishment – and they want to put Labour firmly into the ‘elite’ category: they always describe Keir as ‘Sir Keir Starmer’ and wanted to use his background as a lawyer for this purpose – until they realised the public see that as a plus rather than a minus.
This tactic was clearly on display when the SNP had an Opposition Day Debate on extending the transition: Labour abstained, but Tory MPs in ‘red wall’ seats all obediently tweeted the Tory party saying: “Labour just REFUSED to back making sure we take back control of our borders… at the end of the year. Sir Keir Starmer once said he respected the referendum result – but you just can’t trust a word he says.”
Labour is determined not to give Johnson any ammunition, and to deny him the cloak of sowing division and anger – and using that division and anger to distract journalists and voters from looking at the substance of his government’s actions.
Distracting from substance is another very important part of Johnson and Cummings’ strategy: the famous three-word slogans are deliberately empty of definition or policy outcomes. They use words that every individual will interpret to mean something they value: who doesn’t value being in control or having sovereignty – but control over what? What do you use your sovereignty for? Each individual will have a personal – sometimes unconscious – response to those questions. Neither carries any substance in themselves, nor any suggestion of a cost or consequence.
In the same cost and consequence-free way, they also use the concept of ‘rights’ without ever recognising that where there are rights there are also responsibilities: it’s Britain’s right to do this, that and the other.
Another trait is the near pathological fear of taking responsibility, which has been demonstrated throughout Johnson’s response to Covid-19 and his claiming either that he’s just ‘following the science’ or that it’s up to employers, individuals or local authorities to make the decisions.
In short they have never deliberately defined the price they think is worth paying to achieve the rights, control and sovereignty they claim they are going to deliver. Nor have they owned any of the consequences. Instead, they have used every tool they can to say ‘look over there… look at those people stopping us and thwarting your will’.
This had to change.
What is new in 2020 is that the leaders of Leave are now completely responsible for implementing their project: no one can stop them – and they must have nowhere to hide when the consequences of their actions become clear. So, Labour’s strategy is to hold them to the promises for which they now have the responsibility to make good.
Rachel Reeves, who shadows the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, challenges him on where is the “oven ready” Brexit deal that is “vital for businesses and jobs”. She challenges him on being inconsistent with the Tory manifesto promises and the Political Declaration which they boastfully signed up to last October. She visited the huge lorry park being built in Kent to deal with the new customs formalities, and pointed out the total lack of consultation with the people that will be directly affected. She will keep challenging Gove on delivering on the ‘sunny uplands’ he and others always promised Brexit would deliver.
Keir challenges Johnson on competence – not just in questioning Johnson’s own competence, but also by modelling a more serious approach to politics: even this Government’s allies acknowledge its response to Covid-19 has given Keir more than enough evidence for the prosecution on competence. Johnson can’t use his bombast against Labour in the same way about coronavirus as he would delight in doing about Brexit – Johnson wants to put on a pantomime; in contrast, Keir demonstrates he understands the seriousness of this pandemic.
Of course, Johnson et al will try to make the EU the villains in their pantomime. But if the Labour strategy succeeds – with the help of Johnson himself – the reputation for incompetence, untrustworthiness and general clownish behaviour, will not only be tied to the Government but also to their project.
Brexit happened at the end of January, when we left the political and institutional embrace of the EU. There was very little ‘real life’ impact as a consequence of that.
By this Government’s choice, there is finally going to be an evident ‘real life’ cost when the economic Brexit of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union happens at the end of this year. And it needs to be absolutely unambiguous that it is Johnson, Cummings and Gove’s choice to make the rest of us pay that price.
Labour, and Keir in particular, cannot change the course Johnson has chosen, of delivering a harsh economic Brexit at the end of 2020. What can be done is to remove any distractions from the promises that were made to the British people – from the Leave campaign of 2016, to the Tory manifesto last December – and to make it perfectly clear who is entirely responsible for the outcome.
By not playing Johnson’s game Keir is ensuring that those responsible will indeed be held accountable.
Clare Moody was Member of the European Parliament for South West England in 2014-2019