Keir Starmer has announced he is whipping his Labour MPs to vote for Boris’s Brexit deal in the House of Commons today. There are two likely reasons behind this decision: firstly, to make himself seem like a Labour leader who is a grown up, after Corbyn’s teenaged politics; secondly, to demonstrate that Labour accepts Brexit in order that it may win back Leave voters in red wall seats at the next general election. But there is a big problem with this calculation. While all of Starmer’s Brexit options are difficult ones, he may be about to enact the worst of the lot.
A no-deal situation would have allowed Keir Starmer to claim that as prime minister he would be able to get the Brexit deal from the EU that Boris evidently could not. The Tories would have been in a situation where accepting any deal from the EU after the cliff edge had passed would have been politically difficult, if not impossible, opening this door up for Labour. The Christmas Eve deal kills all of that for Starmer’s party, without even the bonus of a civil war on the right over the terms of the deal. Nigel Farage saw to that.
Yet being placed in this position by Boris does not mean Labour needs to fold; there are a lot of reasons why voting to approve the agreement today will be very bad for them politically, possibly for a long time to come.
One is that while it is far too late for Starmer to convince anyone that he is Mr Brexit, voting for the deal could alienate enough Remain voters in vital seats and young people along the way to make any chance of victory in 2024 even more remote. Starmer hopes to close off the Brexit era completely by helping to enact the deal and move on – this seems like wishful thinking on his part. The deal that will undoubtedly pass through parliament today has many elements which need renewal every so often by the agreement’s very terms. Come 2024, many Leave voters may wish to move further away from the EU than the initial deal makes possible; a lot of Remain voters will hope to move closer to the European Union. If Remain voters do not think the latter is possible under a Labour government, their motivation to vote for the party could be greatly diminished. Thinking that today will kill Remain and Leave factions is naïve.
Beyond all that, Labour MPs voting for the deal today will be the final nail in Scottish Labour’s coffin, particularly with the SNP canny enough to vote against the agreement. It could be argued that Labour is dead in Scotland anyhow, with no realistic hope of reprieve, so there is no sense in Labour throwing good money after bad. The only problem with that being the fact that Starmer decided to make his one major policy set-piece speech since becoming leader about winning Scotland back. If he’s given up on Scotland, he has a funny way of showing it. Yet by voting for the deal today, he is demonstrating once again that while Labour would really love some way to get Scottish voters to return to the fold, they are not willing to make any real sacrifices to achieve that goal.
I don’t see how voting for the deal today helps Labour in red wall seats either. Starmer needs to win the argument with these voters, not fold into Boris Johnson’s vision of a post-Brexit Britain. By that I don’t mean campaigning to re-join the EU or anything like it, but surely Starmer has to try and make the argument to former Labour voters in the north of England that the Brexit enacted by the Tories is not one that is in their best interests? He needs to put forward the case that if put into Number 10, he could re-shape parts of the deal as they come up for renewal with their needs front and centre. By accepting that Boris Johnson was right on Brexit in every way, all along, Starmer is simply telling everyone they were correct to have voted for the Tories in 2019.
Labour voting against the deal today would obviously come with its own risks, but Starmer and his team are severely underplaying the problems that voting the agreement through will bring. Alienating most of your electoral base and kissing goodbye to your last chance of reclaiming a reasonable chunk of Scotland are not things that should be taken lightly. Except that is what the Labour party will be doing in a few hours’ time. So, yes: Boris has placed him in a bad situation here. However, if he wants to be prime minister, Keir Starmer has to give the country a reason to vote for him. Today doesn’t have the appearance of a great start.