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Keir Starmer needs to confront the electorate with hard truths on Brexit

The Tory silence on Brexit is understandable.. Labour's much less so.

With a stained glass window in the background, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meets A-Level students at a Catholic academy in Blackpool Photo: Anthony Devlin/Getty Images

“Just say the B-word,” I urged Tory vice-chairman Andrew Bowie, as we discussed ‘supply chain issues’ on the BBC. You may not have heard of Andrew Bowie, but I am sure you have heard of ‘supply chain issues’.

It’s the big new three-worder in town. Occasionally its fans elongate it to four words, in the hope ‘global’ makes it sound like something that could have happened to any country on earth, rather than one that had recently ripped itself out of a supply chain system which helped the biggest single market in the world run smoothly, to the considerable benefit of economies, businesses and consumers.

They had a good run with ‘get Brexit done.’ Its ‘supply chain issues’ successor is among the many deleterious consequences. But if you are a Tory MP, you must on no account mention the B-word in relation to your analysis of these ‘supply chain issues’.

Bowie was running through all manner of reasons for the empty shelves which have become a regular sight in supermarkets and across social (and very occasionally mainstream) media. My favourite was that eastern European economies were doing better than expected, so lorry drivers preferred to work there.

“Just say the B-word Andrew,” I suggested again. “Just try to say it.”

So he did, but only by going for man not ball, and asserting that I wanted to blame all our problems on ‘Brexit’. This is all part of the gaslighting attempt to portray anyone who calls out the bad caused by Brexit as some kind of swivel-eyed obsessive, when I think we know where most of the swivel-eyed obsessives reside when it comes to Brexit.

Whereas I am prepared to accept, contrary to Bowie’s assertion, that there are issues other than Brexit contributing to the many problems we face right now, the government, their MP robots and media cheerleaders refuse to accept Brexit has anything to do with any of them. It is a form of Conservative collective madness, and one which seems to be infecting large parts of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties too.

Right now, I could fill the entire column most weeks merely by listing the problems in which Brexit plays at least some role: soaring energy prices, import and export complications; rising food prices; rising inflation; labour shortages; rotting unpicked fruit and flowers; milk poured down drains; sewage pumped into rivers; pigs killed and burnt rather than butchered and eaten; additional red tape loading time and cost on businesses; the Northern Ireland Protocol exacerbating the situation for that part of the world.

Any one of those issues would, in normal times, with a normal media covering a normal government, and a normal parliament holding that government to account, form a major part of the national debate.

In these deeply abnormal times, the debate is certainly happening in the country, but for the most part without much of the media and either of the main parties fully engaging in it.

Indeed, were I not presenting Good Morning Britain in London, I would be tempted to head down to Labour’s conference in Brighton this week with a megaphone and yell “just say the B-word” at the shadow cabinet too.

Sir Keir Starmer at Labour Party conference. whilst shadow Brexit secretary. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

There is a logic to the Tories wanting to avoid it. It suits their political interests now to pretend that Brexit has indeed been ‘done’; to project it not as a huge historic shift with enormous consequences for the future, but as an act limited in time, a conversation which dominated the national debate for years, but now it is ‘done’, the focus must shift to other things.

Covid provided the perfect distraction, and the government has not been slow in exploiting it to hide their failings. The pingdemic, the robots and cheerleaders are programmed to say, is the reason for the empty shelves, the HGV shortage, the hospitality sector crisis, the nurse shortage, the doctor shortage. It is only partially true. The Brexdemic is a far bigger factor.

For a perfect example of how ‘it’s nothing to do with Brexit’ has entered the consciousness, check out the BBC coverage of the inflation spike, and the live interview with a Manchester fish trader whose costs had soared, and whose every word was dripping with irony and rage when she looked directly at the camera and said, “nothing to do with Brexit of course”.

What she meant was that it has everything to do with Brexit. If anyone should be interested in the damage being done to working families, it is Labour and the unions. Yet when Keir Starmer spoke to the TUC, the B-word did not pass his lips. Of course, his audience was interested in the other things he spoke of. But not even to address it suggests to me he is leaving a very large elephant in the room.

I said at the time I felt it was a mistake for Labour to support Johnson’s Brexit deal. It gave them shared ownership of it. It disabled future attacks when, as most knew would happen, the thing began to unravel.

And now we are in the crazy situation where when Boris Johnson appointed Michael Gove to his new role as housing secretary, he also asked him to take charge of food shortages – food shortages, FFS – yet Labour focused their line of attack on sacked ministers getting a pay-off, and Nadine Dorries and Liz Truss being a bit of a joke. Whatever happened to ‘no downsides, only upsides’, as promised by the deadly Brexit duo? Can Labour not start to join a few dots?

In a fairly public attack of hubris, Johnson was reported as saying he hopes to stay for longer than Margaret Thatcher as PM. The same report said he intended to frame the next election around Brexit, and would charge that Labour would take us back into the EU.

Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer join an anti-Brexit ‘Trust the People’ march and rally during a past Labour Party Conference in Brighton. Photograph: PA.

Christ, I wish it was true. Like most of the things he says, it isn’t true now and sadly won’t be true then. But that won’t stop him saying it.

Instead of cowering before a lie before it has even been launched, Labour should call it out for what it is now. And then go on the attack on how his deal is doing so much damage, and take the lead in developing the new relationship with the EU which is going to have to be forged to limit the mounting damage being done.

The Labour and Lib Dem omerta helps nobody but the liars and charlatans who created this mess in the first place. They should be destroying the Tories on it, not helping them avoid paying the price for the consequences of their own actions.

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