Throughout the last four years, you could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in Britain has been extremely passionate about Brexit one way or another. The truth is, most people are sick to death of the whole debate. This was the reason ‘Get Brexit Done’ was such an effective slogan; most voters wanted the topic laid to rest. It is this general apathy that I believe is informing Keir Starmer’s approach to Brexit as Labour leader, combined with the knowledge that while most people are sick of Brexit, we are about to enter a whole new phase of it that can’t be ignored.
Passionate Remainers complain that Starmer hasn’t been anti-Brexit enough since he became leader – where was the plea to extend the transition period? Many Leavers grumble that the general election settled the Brexit question once and for all and that Starmer should come out and say that Britain leaving the EU was a good thing. He has done neither or these things and I don’t think he will say anything about Brexit for the rest of this year. Instead, he will most likely come up with an attack designed to satisfy most reasonable Remainers while appealing to the largest number of Leavers possible.
A large part of Labour’s campaign at the next general election will be around the Conservatives having made mistakes. That much is obvious; this is what oppositions always do at election time. The handling of Covid will almost certainly be addressed; Brexit, if the public judge it to be badly handled, will be part of this as well. Starmer could argue that the Tories left us in a bad situation with the EU, and if elected prime minister, he will go back and get a much better deal, one that will create jobs in the UK. If there has been negative economic fallout from the end of the transition period that is still being felt in 2024, this could be effective. If people don’t like the terms of Brexit as it stands, ‘I’m going to get a better version’ could work for a lot of voters.
What Starmer will almost certainly have in mind will be trying to arrange something that looks like Norway Plus – re-joining the Single Market and Customs Union. Tories may console themselves with the idea that this will be easy to attack; yet it could be much harder to do so than a 2020 vantage-point makes it seem. Starmer’s ‘new deal’ would obviously involve freedom of movement returning; yet he’s paved the way for this already, saying he wants freedom of movement anyhow. This is already priced into the Starmer deal with the electorate. It will also involve paying into the EU coffers, but as Iain Duncan Smith has reminded us all recently, the Withdrawal Agreement already signs us up to this anyway, and so this line of attack will be blunted. In fact, Starmer might be able to add ‘I will aim to lower how much we pay to the European Union’ as part of his pitch on EU related matters. If Starmer is accused of wanting to re-join the EU, all the Labour leader has to say in response is that we could never do so without another referendum – and then rule out a referendum on Europe during the next parliament.
The soul of his appeal would be that the Brexit wars of 2016 to 2019 divided the nation. Instead Starmer will bring forth a version of Brexit that will unite Remainers and Leavers, something he can say should have happened back in 2016 when the Tories turned it into a raging culture war instead. He will create a post-Brexit settlement that means we are no longer in any of the EU’s political arrangements, yet get the benefit of still having access to the largest single market on Earth, something he can remind everyone was a key Vote Leave claim and that the Tories suggested this was more than possible after the referendum.
A lot of Conservatives seem to have settled into a place where they don’t think Labour can harm them on the Brexit issue. I believe this is being complacent. They need to remember that a lot of people in this country aren’t that fussed either way and if there is a negative fallout from leaving the transition period at the end of the year, then a huge opening will be created for Starmer. He can claim at the next general election campaign that he will finally Get Brexit Done, an idea which may have the same power in 2024 it had in 2019.