As Boris Johnson celebrates his Brexit deal in the Commons chamber, it's Sir Keir Starmer who has had the more difficult task today in responding to the Prime Minister. As Tory Brexiteers line up to praise Johnson's work – with Bill Cash comparing him to Pericles and Alexander the Great – the Labour leader had to use his turn at the despatch box to explain why his party was (a) backing the deal (b) critical of the deal regardless.
Giving his reasons for instructing his party to back the deal, Starmer said it was the responsible thing to do – arguing that 'those voting no today, want yes: they want others to save them from their own vote'. He said that while the deal was thin, it was the only deal available and that was enough reason to back it: 'it's imperfect, it's thin, and it's the consequences of the Prime Minister's political choices. But we have only one day before the end of the transition period – and it's the only bill we have'.
This meant that Starmer came under fire from both sides. Conservative MPs – notably Theresa May – taking him to task for his criticism of the deal and MPs on the left arguing that he was wrong to back it. Independent MP – formerly Plaid Cymru – Jonathan Edwards used a point of order to suggest Starmer ought not to back a bad deal while the SNP's Ian Blackford repeatedly argued that the deal should be rejected as no deal was not actually a possibility given the Tories have a majority of 80.
As James says on Coffee House, Johnson is keen to keep the issue of Brexit going – telling Starmer: ‘We got Brexit done, let’s keep Brexit done.’ For the Labour leader and his team it's the complete opposite – they want the issue to go away. Today's vote is a political calculation – by voting for the deal, the issue of Brexit will be neutralised and won't be an issue at the next election like it was for Labour in 2019 when they lost swathes of seats in the so-called red wall.
In an interview overnight with the Guardian, Starmer spelled it out: 'We’ve left the EU and the remain/leave argument is over. Amongst the reasons for voting for the deal is to allow that closure. In our general election campaign in 2024, we will be a future-looking Labour party and a future Labour government, not one that looks behind us.' If Starmer has his way, today's statement will be some of his last words on the issue.