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Why Labour must not fall into the Brexit trap

Labour leader Keir Starmer - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on the dilemma facing the Labour Party, if the government secures a Brexit deal with the EU.

Greetings from the depression front line. There is a lot if it around. Mine, and, judging by my inbox and random encounters on rare sorties out of the house, plenty of other people’s too.

Being out there as a mental health advocate does seem to mean complete strangers share their stories with me, sometimes in the most bizarre places, like Totteridge Lane, as I was out on a long bike ride, trying to chase the blues away. Alongside me came a cyclist not much younger than I am – never good for the mood being overtaken by a fellow oldie on a much cheaper bike – who spotted me, slowed, and launched straight in.

“Sorry to hear you’re struggling,” he said. He had seen my tweets. It turned out his big worry was his elderly father, who was living alone, shielding, and whose underlying depression had got worse, and a daughter who was struggling with anxiety that had also got worse.

“Mind you,” he said. “There is a lot to be depressed about.” It is not always the case that awful external factors automatically mean a downward plunge, and vice versa. I was depressed on May 2, 1997, which I will always resent, not having been able to join in the wave of euphoria that greeted New Labour’s first election win. Conversely, there have been times I have felt totally at one with the world, leaving a game that Burnley just lost, as a rainstorm erupts and I don’t have a coat, and my phone is going crazy because a work crisis has erupted too.

That being said, my cycling companion has a point, and when I finally get round to unloading this particular eight out of ten plunge to my psychiatrist, I am sure we will end up talking as much about what is happening in the political arena as what is going on between my ears to create the heavy and unhelpful fog in my mind and a heavy, leaden weight in my body.

Bike-man and I both found the Priti Patel bullying story disturbing. An organisation that does not take workplace bullying seriously does not take mental health seriously. There are plenty of those, but people expect better of their government than they do of rogue employers. That the report found the home secretary guilty of bullying surprised nobody. What was surprising – or perhaps shocking is a better description – was that Boris Johnson should dismiss the advice of his own adviser on ministerial standards, on which there is a code by which all ministers are expected to abide, because Sir Alex Allan would not say what Johnson and Patel wanted to hear.

This goes go the heart of populism – making decisions according to the world as you want it to be, not as it is. It defines Donald Trump’s approach to life, to business, and to politics, which is why the joy many around the world felt at his defeat to Joe Biden has been deflated by his hanging around like a bad smell, and by knowledge that even when finally he is gone, what he stands for will linger, and not just in the US. Depressing, to think that more people voted for Trump than live in the entirety of the UK, and that a good proportion of them unquestioningly believe his lies about the election having been stolen from him.

But be in no doubt that Johnson will continue to take more of a lead from the Trump approach to life and politics, than from Biden’s. One moment, as Dominic Cummings finally left, we thought, ah, maybe Johnson has realised the damage Cummings has done, and that certain rules and norms have to be followed. The next, he sends a WhatsApp message to his MPs saying it is time to circle the wagons for the “Prittster”, and just as once they circled the wagons for Cummings, like a bunch of sheep they take their cut and paste orders to Twitter, and tell us how nice and charming she really is. “Well, she never bullied ME!” In any event, he fired Cummings not for the lies, the bullying of special advisers and civil servants, the incompetence, or the breaking of rules on Covid, but because he said bad things about Johnson’s partner.

Populism, making decisions according to the world as you want it to be, not as it is, has characterised Johnson’s approach on Covid – depressing – and Brexit – really depressing that we are ploughing ahead with this nonsense even when we know how much damage is being done to the economy already; and really, really depressing that chancellor Rishi Sunak is already embarked on the strategy to blame all future economic ills on Covid, lest anyone be minded to focus on the earlier, self-inflicted, man-made cause, namely Brexit.

Sunak enjoys a better reputation than his colleagues simply by not being Alok Sharma, Matt Hancock, Gavin Williamson, Dominic Raab, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Robert Jenrick – my God, is that a depressing line up of cabinet ‘talent?’ – but he seems as ardent a believer in the right-wing, devil-take-the-hindmost view of the world as any of the rest of them.

Just as happy to clap for carers, before making sure public sector workers don’t get a decent pay rise. Just as happy to see allegations of multi-million pound contracts go the way of pals and donors unqualified to do the work for which they are raking it in. Just as happy to stand up for bullies like Johnson standing up for bullies like Patel. Depressing, is it not, if he is the best of a truly bad lot.

Perhaps as depressing as anything else is that such a hopeless bunch, making such a mess of most of the big challenges they face, remain fairly strong in the polls. Keir Starmer has made a pretty good start in many ways as Labour leader, and is certainly more than a match for Johnson at prime minister’s questions. But the fallout from the report on anti-Semitism, and the continuing debate about Jeremy Corbyn’s status, have pretty much drowned out anything else the Party has been saying and doing.

I have also been having some pretty dispiriting conversations with frontbenchers and backbenchers about Labour’s stance on the Brexit deal that the government will almost certainly get, and which both they and Labour know, despite the hoopla in the Brextremist press it will generate, will damage the lives and livelihoods of British people.

It seems they are minded to vote for the deal, thinking that not to do so would be taken as a signal that they prefer no-deal. Those in favour of this approach argue that this will show they have accepted the outcome of the referendum, and are prepared to make difficult decisions and so show they are fit to govern. I am wholly unpersuaded that the way to show fitness to govern is by supporting the least fit to govern government of our lifetime.

If Labour vote for it, then whatever happens in the future – and both sides know it will be bad – they co-own the damage. And whenever Labour attack the government over the consequences, the Tories will be able to say: “But you voted for it.” We could write whole books, let alone speeches, on reasons not to support the deal the government will reach, and certainly there is more than enough to set out in a Reasoned Amendment to accompany abstention in the substantive vote on a deal.

Johnson’s credibility has fallen substantially in recent months. If Labour back a deal they give it, and him, credibility he yearns, when any serious analysis will expose it as weak, flimsy, damaging to the national interest.

Starmer’s strength over Johnson is that he is serious and detailed. He is perfectly capable of setting out the rational reasons to oppose both the fictions and errors that have got us to this point, and the damage to the country of no-deal. And then to put the government on notice that while recognising they have a mandate for the deal, Labour will be analysing the impact of that deal every step of the way.

Also, a bad deal will create a new right-wing dynamic around divergence. Gove and Co know this and will happily argue for a deal on the basis they can then turn around and blame the EU for everything that goes wrong with Brexit. It will be: “We made a deal in good faith but it turns out they still want to shackle us and won’t let Britannia be unbound.” They will then, under pressure from the right, pick fights on juicy populist issues and risk sanctions because that will only be further proof that “the EU hates Britain”. What is Labour’s approach then?

The so-called red wall seats are going to be hit hard by Brexit, as they are being hit hard by the fallout from Covid. Come an election Labour are going to have to be able to link this government’s failings directly to the challenges the people in those areas face, before even opening the door for them to come through to listen to an alternative.

They are not going to thank Labour for having voted for the deal if it turns out to be part of the damage done to their lives. Shared guilt over a disaster is not a good place. The Tories and especially Johnson have to be made to own Brexit, own the lies and the laziness and the catastrophic negotiations that have led to this point. Please, Labour, do not throw him a lifeline he does not deserve. To have both main parties locked into supporting the most damaging decision of our generation really would depress me.

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