Since becoming Labour leader, Keir Starmer’s approach to Brexit had been deafening in its silence.
This was understandable.
The vulnerability of the “Chief Remain Cheerleader” to Tory taunts of keeping the red wall blue is only too evident. The Prime Minister securing a trade beal, undeniably better than what anybody expected, forced Starmer to finally take a position. Despite criticising it as a “thin deal” with more than a hint of “I told you so”, Sir Keir whipped Labour MPs to vote for the deal.
Was this the right call?
We know from the “six tests” Sir Keir outlined, whilst Shadow Brexit Secretary, what his idea of a “suitable” Brexit deal looks like. Even the most sympathetic observer would admit that Boris’ deal doesn’t live up to these – it was never designed to.
Starmer wanted any deal to deliver “the exact same benefits” of EU membership, and the divergence Boris has actively pursued made that impossible. For example, under this deal there is no financial services passport, something which will be devastating for lucrative financial services exports, 43% of which went to the EU, contributing £132 billion to the UK economy.
The Starmer of 2017 would surely have voted against this deal. But the Starmer of 2017 hadn’t witnessed Labour’s 2019 annihilation in its Brexit-voting former heartlands. Whipping Labour MP’s to vote against the deal might have delighted the likes of Andrew Adonis, but it would have been the best Christmas present Boris could have asked for, giving him all the ammunition he needs to dismiss Starmer as an unrepentant Europhile.
Furthermore, as Ian Murray pointed out, the alternative to Boris’ deal wasn’t continued EU membership – it was No Deal, an outcome Starmer described as “not an option”. Hardly anybody seriously advocated this futile act of self-harm, perhaps indicating that Labour has genuinely accepted the reality of Brexit. Rather, the debate is whether Starmer was right to back Boris’ deal, or if he should have, as Neil Kinnock put it, “abstained and explained”.
There are compelling arguments for both notions. No-drama Starmer evidently decided that backing the deal was the best way to put the contentious issue of Brexit to bed, allowing him to continue confidently and effectively exposing Tory incompetence. This bold move is another example that Sir Keir is unafraid to back up his claim that Labour is “under new management” with decisive, and sometimes divisive, leadership choices.
From sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey to withdrawing the whip from Jeremy Corbyn, Starmer is willing to take calculated risks of stoking party division in the name of public rehabilitation. Backing the deal allows him to gain trust in lost red wall seats, something Starmer has called his “mission”. If you want to rebuild relationships with voters who abandoned you, then big moments such as this provide a golden opportunity not to be missed.
However, whilst the backlash against Starmer’s decision appears, so far, to have been relatively well contained – unremitting Remainers may be unlikely to let the issue rest in the longer term. After spending 3 years persuading Labour to support a second referendum, is it really credible for Keir Starmer to have led them in this most brazen of U-turns to back a policy he once condemned as a “decisive lurch to the right?”
Abstaining would have seen Labour avoid endorsing the deal, which would have liberated them to criticise its ramifications with unbridled rigour, something Sir Keir has proved more than capable of. Over the next few years, as the longer-term consequences of Boris’ Brexit become clearer, Labour will need to expose the fundamental flaws and sell a progressive alternative to a sceptical electorate. Abstention would have enabled Sir Keir to do this free from the shackle of being reminded that he backed the Prime Minister in his flagship policy.
However, it would have been difficult to have framed abstention as a kind of “Road to Damascus” transformation for Starmer. Instead of showing strong leadership, abstention would have been perceived as a dereliction of duty. It would have echoed the aggravatingly confused indecision on Brexit which engulfed Labour under Corbyn, the last thing Starmer wants to remind the electorate of.
Starmer’s choice hasn’t been easy, but the brave move of backing the deal was the right one.
Abstention might have seemed intellectually coherent – you don’t like the deal so don’t endorse it, you don’t want no deal, so don’t vote against. However, no matter the rationale, it would have looked like Labour still hadn’t accepted Brexit.
Consider what happened with the latest vote on tier restrictions. Labour wanted some restrictions, so didn’t vote against, but had issues with the package on offer, so abstained. The “abstain and explain” approach might have resonated, if it wasn’t for the complete failure to do the explaining bit. The subsequent communications vacuum enabled the Tories to frame the decision as Labour “not being bothered to vote”. Sir Keir might get away with that on one of the countless tier votes, but if the electorate believed that he couldn’t be bothered to vote on Brexit, that Labour didn’t care whether the will of the people was carried out, he would be toast.
This decision wasn’t about whether Brexit is happening. That battle is long lost.
This is about winning the ultimate war – No.10.
Backing the thin deal means Sir Keir can move onto forensically holding the Tories to account over broken Brexit promises, shifting the focus onto substantive consequences for the economy and living standards, rather than obscure notions of sovereignty.
Voting the deal through doesn’t inhibit Labour from criticising the Tories. David Cameron pulled no punches in the 2010 election, accusing Gordon Brown of “leaving the economy in ruins” with his response to the 2008 Financial Crash, despite the fact that the Tories supported Brown’s measures. Boris’ Brexit needs no paternity test, and Sir Keir knows this. Starmer’s decision may not be enough on its own to win back the red wall, but it is the first step on that road.
He has enabled the party to move on from its Brexistential crisis of the last few years, and to look to a brighter future.