What is it with Labour and Brexit? An issue that during Theresa May’s premiership looked like it could rip the Conservative party apart has instead made them electorally invincible – and caused huge problems for the Labour party.
For that reason, Keir Starmer tends to avoid the topic these days, seeking to show that he and his party have 'moved on'. But some days, he can’t help himself. Yesterday was one of those days. Speaking about the Northern Ireland protocol on the radio, Starmer said:
'We do need to remind the Prime Minister that he signed on the dotted line: this is what he negotiated. If he’s saying it doesn’t work he should look in the mirror and say, well, did I sign something then that wasn’t very sensible?...He didn’t read it, didn’t understand it or he didn’t tell us the truth about it when he said what it had in it.'
But whether or not Starmer's criticism of Boris is fair, it begs the question that if Starmer knew what the protocol entailed – not to mention all the other troublesome aspects of Boris's Brexit deal – why did he whip his MPs to vote for its implementation in December?
Starmer's supporters might well say that he had little choice. After all, the alternative was no deal. Or, they might say, voting it down would have been painted by the Tories as an attempt to block Brexit. But this hardly seems credible. Surely if Starmer thought it was a bad deal, he should have been able to make that point while also being clear he did not want to overturn the referendum.
But what Starmer said next in his interview was even more troubling. It also gives some indication of the perilous situation Labour is in.
'Having checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not the way forward. Having any checks between the Republic and Northern Ireland is absolutely not the way forward. So we need to make some real progress,' Starmer said.
Again, this begs a question which Starmer has so far offered no answer to. If we don’t have checks in the Irish Sea and none on the island of Ireland itself, what exactly is Keir Starmer proposing as his magical solution to this problem?
The options are limited to those which would spell doom for Labour: re-joining the Single Market or the Customs Union, the EU itself, or, at the very least, spending a long time – probably about a decade – negotiating some other arrangement with the EU that solves this problem.
And yet, not only has Starmer ruled out re-joining any of those things, he has ruled out renegotiating the post-Brexit settlement in any fashion.
All Starmer is doing is annoying Remainers while confirming for many Leavers what they have always suspected: the Labour leader wants to reverse Brexit. If Labour is offering no credible alternative to the problems created by this government, why should anyone even think about voting for them? Starmer's party is good at diagnosing the problem but hopeless at putting forward any solutions.
Starmer has said many times that he wants to leave Brexit behind and 'move on'. Unless he wants to majorly shift Labour policy on Brexit back towards a Remainer friendly position – and it is questionable whether he could even pull that off now – he should follow his own advice. Whenever he talks about anything Brexit related these days, it comes across as a confusing mess. All he does by bringing all this up in nonsensical fashion is remind Remainers he is no longer one of them, while at the same time confirming for Leavers that he’s Mr Remain.
This is another example of Starmer's own brand of cakeism: he wants to seem like he's put Brexit behind him but then pops up with a comment that completely goes against everything he's said about the issue since becoming Labour leader.
If Starmer thinks the current post-Brexit arrangements leave a lot to be desired, he should come clean about what he is proposing to do otherwise. Alternatively, if he really wants to show everyone that Labour has 'moved on' from Brexit, he should just keep quiet.