The shadow Brexit secretary still remains a Brexiteer… for now.
If I ever need a lawyer to get me out of a tight spot, Sir Keir Starmer QC will be the man.
Once ‘QC of the year,’ and a former Director of Public Prosecutions, I am confident no legal stone would be left unturned. In sheer solidity, and look of cold command, he impresses the judge, terrifies the witnesses, and would secure the benefit of any doubt from a wavering jury.
When it comes to the public enquiry on Brexit, holding to account those responsible for the lies and abuse of office, Starmer will be the man too. Like the special counsels who hounded Nixon, and are after Trump, one could rely on him to pursue the guilty, however high and mighty, to resignation and justice. So much so that every time I see Starmer in role, those words of the gospel flash before me: ‘He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.’
The problem is, those qualities only get you so far as a politician when the requirement of the day is imagination and leadership. Where he fails short is in the supreme biblical injunction to the political leader: ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’
Just maybe Starmer will manoeuvre of his own volition to the complete defeat of Brexit through the relentless application of his ‘six tests’ on the Brexit deal, and the ‘putting on the table and not ruling out in advance’ of a People’s Vote with an option to remain, which, under his convoluted drafting of this week’s anaemic party conference resolution, brought anti-Brexit delegates to their feet, relieved that all hope had not been lost at hands of Len McCluskey and John McDonnell.
But I doubt it. In politics the best way to lead is to lead. Trying to change the political weather by tweaking the text of the weather forecaster only yields an effect by coincidence.
Moreover, Starmer doesn’t actually want to change the weather. Since 2016 he has been a Brexiter – for reasons of ambition and conviction, reinforcing each other. It is why, consistently – including this week – he talks about getting the best Brexit deal, not about stopping Brexit.
True, he is now forced to entertain the outside possibility that Brexit might be stopped. But only a popular uprising inside the party has brought him to this point. Witness his expression of embarrassed astonishment as conference delegates cheered his words that Remain would be an ‘option on the table’ in the event of the dear leader electing to consider the possibility of a People’s Vote.
The ambition at stake is Starmer’s intoxicating belief he might succeed the dear leader. Not having a power base inside the Labour party, he looks at the big one which he thinks he needs have on-side to have a shot – Corbyn’s Momentum machine – and doesn’t want to alienate it. This makes him essentially a servant not an advocate in his approach to Jeremy Corbyn and McDonnell, although with enough self-respect not actually to say that black is white when it manifestly isn’t.
The conviction is the belief I have often heard him express, that the 2016 referendum cannot be reversed; that a second referendum would be too divisive, not least inside the Labour movement; that it might be lost anyway, making things even worse; and that we should get on and make the best of a bad job.
This defeatist view is common among Labour ‘moderates’, whose moderation largely consists in not wanting to do anything which involves a big argument with, or challenge to, the Brexit status quo. Only ‘facts on the ground’ – like the mother of all People’s Vote demonstrations in London on October 20 – will shift this fatalism, and that’s what now needs to happen.
There is, however, one significant chink in the Starmer carapace. In a past life Starmer was a human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
He knows from personal experience the real danger that a new border in Northern Ireland could revive the paramilitaries. On this, his convictions are sound. And he doesn’t have any conflict on Ireland with Corbyn, who, not for wholly the same reasons, doesn’t want a new Irish border either.
As I have long said, Ireland is the Achilles heel of Brexit because the only way of avoiding a new border is for Northern Ireland to stay in the single market and the customs union.
Hence the Irish backstop – a constant and growing headache for Theresa May, and which might just cause Sir Keir Starmer QC to show the courage of a conviction and actually do something, pro-actively, to stop Brexit in the weeks ahead.