Sooner or later Starmer will have to talk about Europe

Keir Starmer during his Labour Party conference speech

Starmer’s near silence on Brexit is not all bad news for pro-Europeans. Events will soon force him to say more.

The full text of the short section devoted to Europe and Brexit in Keir Starmer’s speech yesterday to the virtual Labour Party conference is as follows:

“The grown-up way to deal with Brexit is to negotiate properly and get a deal. And on Brexit, let me be absolutely clear. The debate between Leave and Remain is over. We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe. The prime minister has repeatedly promised that he will get a deal. So go on and get one.

“British business needs a deal. Working people need a deal. Our country needs a deal. And if the prime minister fails to get one, he will be failing Britain. If that happens, he’ll have nobody to blame but himself. And he will have to own that failure. It will be on him.

“We want to get this deal done, and like everybody else, we’re growing tired of the prime minister’s bluster. The arrogance of this government makes me so angry. A government minister telling parents to “stop carping” when they can’t get a test for their sick child angers us all.”

These remarks (163 words) account for just 5% of a relatively short speech. The speech contains absolutely nothing about Britain’s international or trade relations and policies, or its future place in the world.

It promises that Starmer’s Labour (unlike Corbyn’s) will never be vulnerable to criticism about national security, but says nothing about what it will do to ensure this. This is one of several points in the speech where Starmer extracts maximum profit from contrasting himself with Corbyn, while endorsing the deluge of smears against Corbyn that contributed to Labour’s disastrous defeat.

It promises that Labour will be patriotic but contains no specific vision of what this means in terms of the status and conduct of the UK as a nation. The underlying implication, which is relevant and meaningful in current circumstances, is that Labour will govern in the national interest.

The phrase “banging on about Europe” is a direct quote from David Cameron’s opening speech to the Conservative Party conference in 2006. For anyone who spotted this, and remembers the subsequent history, it is a rather surprising borrowing. Cameron said:

“Instead of talking about the things that most people care about, we talked about what we cared about most. While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life – we were banging on about Europe.”

Starmer’s remarks on Brexit say as little as possible and say nothing new. Starmer has nothing whatever to say here on Labour’s vision of Britain’s future relationship with Europe.

Starmer’s aims here appear to be purely negative and defensive: not to be seen as opposing Brexit; not to be seen as hampering or challenging the government’s implementation of Brexit; not to be seen as supporting the interests of the EU against those of the UK’s negotiating goals; not to be seen as predicting or secretly desiring the government’s failure.

As far a possible, Starmer limits himself to reciting truisms. The government won its mandate for Brexit. Brexit has happened. Remaining is no longer an option.

But government – which is what interests Starmer – is not only about reciting truisms. It is about choices. We can agree that, “The grown-up way to deal with Brexit is to negotiate properly and get a deal.” But what a properly negotiated deal should look like is not decided by saying that, “The debate between Leave and Remain is over.”

Starmer’s position for the time being consists almost totally in the proposition that Johnson promised (and claimed to have, oven-ready) a done Brexit deal that would be a good deal for the country. Johnson has promised this; the nation has accepted this promise; the nation needs the promise to be kept; Johnson will be held to this promise.

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It is understandable that Starmer does not question whether the promise is capable of being delivered. Starmer’s position is that Labour accepts the verdict of the December election – including over Brexit. While dumping as much blame as possible on Corbyn, he avoids spelling out what exactly was wrong with Labour’s election offer on Brexit, which of course was Starmer’s own area of policy responsibility. Starmer’s way of accepting the people’s verdict about Brexit, for the moment, is to avoid the question.

Under Corbyn, Labour had some meaningful criteria – enunciated by Starmer – on what would constitute an acceptable Brexit deal. At the moment, it can seem as though the extreme pressure of events has crushed to nothing the distinction between getting any EU deal and getting a deal that works. But a responsible opposition should not be pressured into a position of accepting just any deal as better than none.

Events will anyway soon require Starmer to move beyond his current policy minimalism. Labour’s position seems to be predicated on the assumption that an acceptable deal is possible, because the people have willed this. What will Labour say when it transpires that Johnson cannot deliver the deal? Pro-EU Labour thinkers, or those who see the need for its thinking to progress, need to focus hard and soon on this.

As someone who wishes the UK to rejoin the EU as soon as possible, I choose to consider that Starmer’s extreme brevity leaves me some room for hope. We are told that, “the debate between Leave and Remain is over”. This is now extremely well-trodden ground. We have left; we cannot remain. For all except a minority of heroic litigators, this is now fact – which means it is not policy. We can’t remain. That doesn’t means we can’t start to build the case to rejoin, tomorrow if not today, or as soon as the immediate mess of exit has been stabilised (which admittedly may take some time, but necessary actions to mitigate disaster may soon start bigger shifts in thinking about future options).

Starmer’s provisional minimalism rules this neither in nor out.

Starmer chooses to centre his initial pitch on competence and patriotism. Fine. Patriotism means government in the national interest – something we certainly do not now have. Competent government of the UK in the national interest requires the reversal of Brexit in the shortest possible timeframe.

A serious attempt to restore competent government led by Labour means that these basic consequences need to be grasped, stated and communicated, as soon as possible.

Colin Gordon lives in Oxford