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Labour are letting the Tories off the hook on Brexit

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to the University of Edinburgh School of Medicine. - Credit: PA

Weak Labour is letting itself be led by the Conservatives on Brexit. 

It’s the hope that kills you. Every football fan knows the feeling. But it’s the same in politics too. Despite being kicked out of the party a while back I so hope Labour win the next election. I so hope the venality and incompetence of this awful, dreadful, wretched government gets punished. I so hope that just as the Americans have corrected their error of 2016 we can begin to clean up the mess of our 2016 and 2019 errors – Brexit and Boris Johnson.

But I worry. I worry because whereas Trump is a one-term nightmare, Brexit is likely to be around a lot longer. I worry too that whereas there was always a sizeable proportion of the US public revolted by Trump’s lies, his lack of basic human decency and the placing of self before country, Britain seems more becalmed faced with the UK variety of the same disease. And I worry that the opposition has yet fully to grasp just how venal and ruthless these Tories really are.

I do not recommend playing them at their own game. Because that way lies a dive to the bottom and the vacation of any sense of morality in politics whatsoever. I do recommend studying the tone and nature of the Joe Biden handling of Donald Trump.

One of Biden’s best qualities was that Trump did not get inside his head. That was important. Because the truth is he was inside a lot of people’s heads all the time. The noise he created. The nonsense. The tweets. The false narratives. The whole ‘oh my God what has he gone and done now?’ of it all. Johnson is more subtle than Trump. But he is smashing norms and values with every bit as much cavalier disregard for truth, decency or a genuine belief in public service. And I worry that Johnson and his right wing populist Tories get inside Labour heads in a way that Trump failed to get inside Biden’s. “Aw shut up man,” was for me the highlight of the low level debates that Trump sought to drag into the gutter. “You’re the worst president we’ve ever had”’ was runner-up. His candid assessment that Trump’s character had created the failed response to Covid took bronze.

He was not getting down in the gutter with him. But he was calling him out for who and what he was. I don’t feel Labour are calling out Johnson for who and what he is. Now I get it – we are in the middle of a pandemic and the last thing the country wants is endless name calling and politicians failing to act in the national interest and for the national good.

But as Labour ponder what to do about a possible vote on Brexit they should look back at their Covid strategy. Support the government in its basic aims, criticise where they get things wrong. The government has got so many things wrong. Big things. Yet when Labour raise any of these, it becomes clear that these ruthless Tories only heard the part of the strategy they wanted to hear – support the government in its basic aims.

There was even a moment in a recent PMQs exchange when Keir Starmer felt moved to remind Johnson that Labour had supported him on the lockdown measures when Tory MPs were starting to rebel. Mmmm. What does that say about how the Tories view opposition? It says they will pocket support and turn with venom when the opposition does what it says on the tin, and opposes, or exposes the lies and the sheer failure to do pretty much anything without cocking it up. We are seeing the same now in their response to Labour’s abstention on Covid tiering.

These are populists. Opportunists for whom politics is a game in which you get power by exploiting genuine concerns about change in the world, and you keep power by finding ever new and more imaginative targets to blame for your own failings. So Andy Burnham is to blame for Covid in the north, and people not listening to the advice are to blame for Covid in the south. The people who are never to blame are the people who keep telling us we have turned the corner, squashed the sombrero and keep shifting the deadlines by which we will reach the sunlit uplands and all manner of other failure-camouflaging clichés.

Covid is developing according to the same pattern as Brexit. Tell people what you think they want to hear, regardless of the facts. Make false promises about the future. Blame everyone else when that future fails to materialise. The next target will be the EU, to be presented as the sole reason why Brexit has gone wrong.

At least with Covid the rest of the world is engaged in the same struggle and will help find solutions, be that vaccines or economic support through crisis. But when it comes to Brexit the rest of the world long ago stopped seeing this as a shared endeavour. Brexit is made in Britain, or more accurately in England, and Britain and the UK will have to clear up its own mess.

And I really worry, Labour having been shown already on Covid what this government does when you are nice enough and reasonable enough to help them out, that if they support Boris Johnson‘s Brexit deal it risks being an error of catastrophic proportions. When I said this to a member of the shadow cabinet this week he said I sounded like one of those Japanese soldiers who thought years after the war had ended that it was still going on. However there is a difference. The Japanese who had been hiding, when told what had happened in their absence, were able to compute a new reality and in the main get on with their lives. With Brexit it is happening – even I accept that, crazy though I think it is and angry through it still makes me – but the new reality has tended to confirm what people like me said and thought rather than deny it.

So the real madness in our politics is that despite this new reality confirming they lied, confirming there was no oven-ready deal, confirming the economic damage will be real and substantial, not only are those who believed in Brexit being asked to support it… but Labour are urging those who didn’t support it to do so too! To support a deal when it fails to meet any of the major conditions set for it by either of the main parties. I mean I know manifesto commitments have gone out the window with the Tories simply deciding to dump their categoric pledge on overseas aid. But once both sides are no longer worried about what they have promised in the past then how do we even begin to conduct a democratic debate?

Sometimes in politics you have to trade off principles and pragmatism. The proposed approach strikes me as being neither principled – in that Labour knows the deal will damage their constituents – nor pragmatic. It won’t bring closure. It won’t persuade hardened Brexiters that Labour really supports it. Far from people thinking it shows Labour strength many will think it shows weakness. And it won’t clear the way for Labour to make a more constructive argument about future relations with the EU.

The dynamic in this debate will quickly shift back to cries of betrayal from the Brextremists. The pressure on the government will be to seek ways of diverging from it and picking a populist fight against those nasty Europeans. Labour will be marooned in a place where they have to defend an unpopular deal which they backed.

I have heard all the arguments why Labour are minded to support a deal. And I fear that every single one of them comes primarily from the fact that the Tories and the Tory media are more inside Labour’s heads than vice versa. They have bought the line that the Tories took northern seats because of Brexit. No, Jeremy Corbyn was a way bigger factor and they all know it. They have bought the line that Labour won’t be heard on anything else until it has fallen into line on Brexit. No, Labour needs to have an agenda on everything else that is better than the right-wing populist rubbish served up by these clowns. They have bought the line that people around the country sit telling each other that Keir Starmer is a massive London metropolitan elite Remainer when in truth they are just relieved he is not Corbyn, quite like the cut of his jib, and would like to see and hear a bit more of what he has to say.

In buying those lines they are, if they do support the deal, putting themselves in a position where any time they criticise the government as Brexit destroys jobs, harms business, creates decline, chaos and red tape galore, Johnson will fire up his panto MPs to shout and screech so that come an election everyone remembers the line: “BUT YOU VOTED FOR IT.”.

I just cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone would want to co-own this enterprise. If they get a deal it doesn’t even need a vote as they have the mandate already and there will only be one so Johnson can do what he likes to do – theatre and game-playing politics. If he gets a deal it is almost certain to get through without Labour votes. So let them have it on those terms. Their Brexit. Their deal. Their Covid. And they have ballsed up the lot of it. Then get on with preparing a modern agenda for a better future and do not let them put an albatross that they killed around your neck.

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