This has not been a Brexit election. But the result will determine what Brexit deal we get
Theresa May wanted and expected this to be a Brexit election. But as is always the case, it is the public and not politicians who decide what an election is about.
I have been campaigning in constituencies across the country over the last six weeks and it is clear that while Brexit is still important to many people, it is not the defining issue on the doorstep. There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, whether people voted to leave or remain in the referendum, the majority now appear to want to move on. There is – as the Liberal Democrats are finding to their cost – little desire to rerun the referendum or to attempt to rub out the result. Instead, the British people want to focus on what type of Brexit deal we will get and what type of country Britain will be after we leave the EU.
Secondly, May has been unable to escape her record after seven years in Government or to set out a positive vision for the future. Perhaps this should have taken none of us by surprise.
After all, if you call an election on a record of six million people earning below the living wage and four million children living in poverty, after broken promises on immigration, with the NHS and social care system in crisis, homelessness rising and a chronic housing shortage, you cannot expect to escape scrutiny or for the British people to give you a blank cheque.
But while Brexit has not been foremost in voters’ minds during the campaign, it remains critically important to Britain’s future. All parties will rightly need to focus on it in the weeks, months and years to come.
May has made much of her leadership style, but this campaign has shown up her limitations and shortcomings. The social care U-turn – dropping a flagship manifesto policy within four days – was an astonishing example of weak and ineffective leadership, and it was underlined by evasive media appearances. She may have wanted the campaign to be about ‘strong and stable’ leadership, but it is the phrase ‘weak and wobbly’ that has stuck.
The campaign has also been revealing about the tone and approach that May would adopt in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. A few weeks ago she made the extraordinary claim that the EU is ‘lining up’ against Britain, ‘issuing threats’ and trying to ‘affect the result’ of the General Election. No doubt she was advised that this would help her with would-be UKIP voters, but it comes at a price in the negotiations which the country as a whole will have to pay.
May has also repeatedly talked up the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal – even though this would be catastrophic for British businesses, jobs and our security. She has unnecessarily distanced Britain from any possible discussions about the single market, the customs union and ruled out the possibility of Britain remaining in mutually beneficial European organisations such as Europol, the European Medicines Agency and Euratom. Her obsession that the European Court of Justice should have no role whatsoever risks pushing Britain further and further away from our nearest trading partners and our most important allies.
In short, May is preparing for a war rather than negotiating a peace. Her approach has left us increasingly isolated and walking toward no deal.
The dangers of this outcome – of no deal on security, no deal on the border in Northern Ireland, no deal on citizens’ rights, no deal on aircraft flights into and out of Britain, no deal on future trading relations, customs arrangements or migration rules – need only to be listed for all to realise what a colossal failure ‘no deal’ would be for Britain. That is why any responsible government would reject no deal as a viable option rather than talking it up as ‘no problem’.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Brexit does not have to mean whatever May says it means. A Labour Government will take a different approach – resetting our relationship with the EU, rejecting no deal as a viable option and setting out new negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union.
This really matters because Brexit negotiations are scheduled to start less than two weeks after the General Election and they will dominate the next Parliament.
The negotiations will be tough but I am convinced that, with the right approach and a grown-up 21st century attitude where we are smart and flexible, a good deal can be negotiated. That is in our interests and the interests of the EU.
Our ambition should be to establish and agree a new positive and meaningful relationship with our EU colleagues. We share a common history, common values and a common interest in meeting challenges such as climate change, terrorism, security and safety together. We have a common interest in collaborating on issues such as cutting edge medical research, art, culture, science and technology together.
The referendum result must be respected and we will leave the EU. But with the right tone and approach, we can establish a strong new partnership with the EU. That should be our goal.
Labour’s pledge to provide certainty for EU nationals living in the UK and prioritise reciprocal arrangements for UK citizens living in the EU27 will help set the right tone from the start.
But we also need to re-set the whole agenda. Our priority should be jobs and the economy. Getting the right trading arrangements for the future will underpin our prosperity as a nation. That does not mean ducking the immigration question, but it does mean avoiding false promises to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. That discredited approach, reiterated by Theresa May in this election campaign, undermines public confidence in immigration control and threatens economic harm.
Labour would also scrap the Great Repeal Bill and ensure there is no drop in workers’ rights, consumer rights, human rights or environmental protections as a result of Brexit. And we will have the confidence to bring Parliament into the Brexit process, not push it away, and to work with the devolved administrations to make sure Brexit works for all parts of the country.
This election may not be about Brexit. But it will determine what type of approach Britain takes to Brexit negotiations and shape the Brexit deal we do or do not get.
That is why the result on June 8 is so important. It is the last chance to prevent the reckless, divisive approach May will take and to put British values of solidarity, fairness and equality at the heart of the Brexit process.
Keir Starmer QC is Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU and Labour candidate for Holborn & St Pancras