Keir Starmer is desperate for Brexit to be done. To that end, he whipped his MPs to vote for the Boris Brexit deal at the end of last year, fearing that to do otherwise would be to prolong Labour’s long running agony on the subject. The only problem with this plan is that Labour’s trauma with Brexit may only have just begun. So much so, I think it could be one of the main causes of defeat in 2024, should that take place.
The genius of the Brexit deal is that in one real sense it does ‘get Brexit done’, while in another it leaves open the fact that there will still be plenty to work out between the UK and the EU over the coming years – all of which can be spun to the Tories’ advantage. Starmer, by voting for the deal and since remaining silent on the issue, has given Boris all the leeway he will likely require in his relationship with the EU over the coming years.
In other words, all of the practical weaknesses of the Brexit deal have already been turned into political positives for Boris – at least in the short to medium-term. The fact that Starmer and Farage have perfectly played along only helps cement this situation. Any of the problems the deal throws up can be painted as EU intransigence and meddling, while any of the upsides – one of which we’ve seen already with the vaccine roll-out – can be banked by the Tories as Boris having done the right thing.
If they could go back in time and do it all over, the best way for Labour to have handled the 2016 EU referendum result would have been to have put all their energy into a soft Brexit. Some Labour figures at the time, like Chuka Umunna, tried to do just that. But under Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour party officially wandered all over the place, from Corbyn insisting the government trigger Article 50 immediately after the result was known, to ending up half-heartedly backing a second referendum. Labour should have tried to be the voice of Brexit realism, which would have given them room to criticise the current deal while not seeming like they wanted to ignore the referendum result. Instead, they have ended up completely boxed in on the topic.
Labour voting for the Brexit deal in December hasn’t make any of those problems disappear. It’s indicative of what Starmer and those around him have never grasped – that Brexit is a cultural phenomenon more than anything else. Dealing with the mechanics of it won’t make it go away as an issue. So long as Brexit is seen by enough British voters as having been the right thing to do, I don’t think Labour can win a general election.
Of course, it’s true that if Starmer was now going on about re-joining the single market, or even just saying he wants a closer relationship with the EU, he would be handing the Tories a weapon to use against him in the form of ‘Labour is trying to re-open the Brexit debate’. But that’s the crux of the problem here: Starmer and his team haven’t yet realised that he’s damned either way by the Brexit question. By laying down all of his weapons on Brexit, Starmer has mostly closed off the ‘Labour are trying to reverse the referendum’ line of Tory attack, but at the expense of simultaneously shutting down a huge offensive front for Labour against the Conservatives that would energise their base at the same time.
For something that was supposed to break apart the Conservative party, it is amazing that Brexit has become the albatross around Labour’s neck. Whatever problems Boris’s deal and Brexit in general throws our way over the next few years, Starmer has made it so that Labour cannot possibly capitalise, no matter what happens. He seemingly bet everything on Johnson screwing up both the pandemic and Brexit; now that neither has taken place, at least in the eyes of the majority of the British public, the Labour leader appears for the moment to be out of moves.
In that case, what should Starmer do now when it comes to Britain’s relationship with the EU? I don’t see how remaining silent on it for the rest of the Parliament is possible. By the same token, it’s hard to see how he brings it up again at this stage. He wanted Brexit to be over and done with so that we could move on as a country, with this reset giving Labour new possibilities. He never worked out that the Tories weren’t going to allow him this freedom – and that Boris designed his Brexit deal in an ingenious way that would make this impossible. The Prime Minister set a trap for Starmer and he fell right in. How he gets out of it now is difficult to foresee.