Tom Goodenough

If Keir Starmer is Labour’s great hope the party really is in trouble

If Keir Starmer is Labour's great hope the party really is in trouble
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Is Keir Starmer Labour’s great hope? That’s what some longing for the day that Jeremy Corbyn calls it a day have said. The shadow Brexit secretary was centre stage yesterday as he spelled out the party’s plan for leaving the EU. But for those pinning their hopes on Starmer, today’s newspaper editorials make miserable reading.

Labour’s plan for Brexit ‘is a joke’, says the Sun, which blasts the shadow Brexit secretary for his ‘waffle and wishful thinking’ yesterday. The paper says that Starmer’s argument that we should return to the negotiating table in Brussels if MPs reject the Brexit deal would give the 'EU licence to play hardball for years’. Starmer is also wrong to say that staying in the single market is an option that should be kept on the table: ‘The EU has been crystal clear,’ argues the Sun, ‘to end free movement, as Starmer accepts we must, we must leave the Single Market’. Some have said that once Jeremy Corbyn eventually steps down as Labour leader, Starmer is the party’s ‘best hope’. If that’s the case, ‘Labour are in even graver long-term trouble than we thought’.

The Daily Mail agrees: ‘heaven help Labour’ if Starmer is the party’s choice as Corbyn’s replacement. As he detailed Labour’s Brexit plan yesterday, Starmer looked ‘wholly out of his intellectual depth’ and ‘achingly dull’. His strategy was also inconsistent: saying that he would end free movement but still considered the possibility of remaining in the single market. The Mail says this means only one thing: ‘Labour is in favour of both leaving the EU and remaining in it’. The paper is also less than impressed with Labour’s idea of guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens living in Britain on day one of a Corbyn government - something Theresa May has so far refused to do - pointing out that this gesture would mean asking for ’nothing in return to protect the million-plus British expats in Europe’. ‘If this is the best Sir Keir can offer’, concludes the Mail, ‘mightn’t Labour just as well stick with Mr Corbyn?’ 

Starmer had hoped to shed some much-needed light on Labour’s Brexit strategy yesterday. Instead, the Daily Telegraph says, he merely confirmed what an ‘incoherent mess’ the party really is in. The paper takes the rare step of saying that Lord Mandelson ‘spoke for the nation’ when he was asked what Labour would do if it was tasked with delivering Brexit. 'Search me', he said. If a former Labour cabinet minister is baffled by Labour's plan, what hope is there for the rest of us and how ‘can the country place any trust in him,’ the paper asks. Labour’s big problem, suggests the Telegraph, is that the party has still failed to ‘come to terms with the fact that the country voted to leave’. For all the muddle and confusion there is some clarity, however: ‘it would not be in the national interest to send Mr Corbyn to negotiate this country’s post-Brexit future.’

On Brexit, even the likes of Tony Blair - ‘normally so fluent even when fluently wrong, has tied himself in knots’, says the Times. So Keir Starmer’s inability to answer all the questions on Brexit is not ‘wholly his fault’. Yet Labour ‘should be doing better than this’ and Starmer’s speech yesterday will have led many still searching for the answer as to what Labour’s Brexit plan really is. Take the quite realistic prospect of ‘no acceptable deal’ being reached in Brexit talks. What would Labour do? ‘Walk away? Try to stay in? The question was avoided,’ says the Times. ‘This is a failure of nerve,’ argues the paper, which says that Sir Keir missed the chance to ‘outline what his own, rival vision’ of Brexit really is.

Those searching for a summary of Labour’s Brexit plan would do well to turn to the Guardian, which says that the party’s policy ‘is probably best summed up by the Rolling Stones line 'you can’t always get what you want'’. The paper says there is now a clear distinction between the Tory and Labour brand of Brexit. ‘The difference is that (unlike Theresa May) Sir Keir has declined to explain what would happen if the EU told Britain that the deal on offer in March 2019 was a 'take it or leave it' one,’ the Guardian argues. But one possible answer he put forward - that Britain could fall back on ‘transitional arrangements’ - looks like it was ‘conjured up to escape a seemingly unsolvable problem’. After all, for the time being, the more sensible option if no decent deal was offered - to ask Brussels for an extension on negotiating talks - is not available because of the current climate in which ‘voters are more likely to ask 'why haven’t we left?' than 'why aren’t we staying?', the paper argues. But once the ‘cost of Brexit becomes clear’, this ‘might change’, argues the Guardian. For the time being though, ‘Sir Keir has done what is politically possible’ and he remains one of Labour’s ‘brightest talents’