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Every bit of Tory chaos makes a return to the EU more likely

Starmer’s Labour would be radical in power - and rejoining should not be ruled out if it won a second term

Image: The New European

It’s as certain as anything can be in politics. Barring a major change of fortune for the government, Keir Starmer will become prime minister in 2024, quite possibly with a majority to rival Clement Attlee’s in 1945 or even Tony Blair’s in 1997. 

The bigger the majority, the more likely it is that Labour would earn a second term in 2029 or thereabouts. And that could herald a fundamental change in direction, even a return to the EU in the early 2030s.

The next election looks increasingly like being more than an ordinary switch from a tired (and in this case shambolic) government to a new team. In fact, 2024 could be one of those big moments that former Labour PM James Callaghan said happened every 30 years or so, when “there is a sea-change in politics…. a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

I identify five in the 20th century: Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal landslide in 1905 and Baldwin’s Conservative one in 1931; Attlee’s huge Labour victory in 1945, Thatcher’s Conservative one in 1979, and Blair’s for Labour in 1997.  

Starmer’s anticipated 2024 victory could be the first sea change of the new century. How radical a change in government policy this heralds will depend largely on the new prime minister.  Is he a radical figure, like Attlee, or cautious and conservative, like Blair? 

For the moment, European diplomats (and Liverpool, significantly, was stiff with them during Labour’s recent conference in the city) will happily settle for a government they can do business with. Publicly they are careful what they say, though their silences and nuances are sometimes ear-splitting. In private the Europeans tell you that they don’t trust the Tories, and do not see why they should be flexible with them. 

A week after the September 21 meeting between Liz Truss and EU president Ursula von der Leyen in New York, the EU ambassador to Britain, João Vale de Almeida, was telling a Labour Party fringe meeting: “The levels of trust are too low to produce good results.  It is not normal that we should have had no summit with Britain for two years.”  Privately, the EU say the meeting in New York was a disaster. 

Truss fared no better with US president Joe Biden on her evidently ill-fated American trip. The US is now sharing security intelligence with the EU, but not with the UK, and Biden took a much-publicised swipe at the “predictable” collapse of Truss’s mini-budget, which he described as “a mistake”.

Listening to the careful public statements from João Vale de Almeida as he toured the Labour Party conference fringe, I had the clear impression of a man who was waiting for Starmer’s team. With Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy sitting beside him at one of these meetings, de Almeida said the EU “welcomes the major opposition party in the UK focusing on relations with the EU.”

He added: “I encourage the Labour Party to pursue this. We have been concerned and disturbed by post-Brexit disagreement.” The proposed Protocol Bill is “illegal, counterproductive, and a breach of international law.” From a diplomat at a public meeting, this is incendiary. 

He and Lammy behaved like people who already knew and trusted each other, which, it seems, they do. Lammy told the same meeting that he wanted “a normalised relationship with our closest allies in Europe…  This is about rolling up your sleeves and getting round a table and negotiating.” 

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves told the conference: “If you are remotely serious about growth you have got to make Brexit work. Our agriculture and our food industries rely on trade right across Europe, but we have a deal which doesn’t even include a veterinary agreement. We are pioneers in creative industries, but we have a deal which ties them in knots over visas. We are the second largest exporter of services in the world but we have a deal that doesn’t include the mutual recognition of professional qualifications.”

So for the moment, Labour offers only a better way of doing business.  At least in Labour’s first term of office, there will be no move to rejoin the EU or the single market.  

What about the second term? Might there then be a move to rejoin? The EU, at least in its present mood, would not be willing to waive the requirement on new entrants to join the euro. One of Starmer’s confidantes told me in Liverpool: “I don’t expect us to be back in the EU in my lifetime.”

Nonetheless, the former leader of Labour’s MEPs Richard Corbett was in Liverpool to punt the re-join cause around the conference fringe, in the hope that it will get enough of a head of steam to force itself onto the agenda next year.  

He points to the polling evidence showing that if the vote were held now, EU membership would win handsomely, and says the gap is steadily growing. 

The Liverpool vote for proportional representation may aid the rejoin cause.  Brendan Donnelly, director of the Federal Trust and one of the founders of Rejoin EU, says: “The concern for EU countries could be that under our electoral system another extreme Conservative government could be elected with only 42% of the vote, and call another referendum. Then they would have to go through all this agony a second time. There is an anti-Conservative majority in this country but under our electoral system the Conservatives win nonetheless.”

In its first term, Starmer’s government will follow the example of his political hero Harold Wilson who believed that relentless negotiation was the way to solve problems. But in the longer term, another Wilson innovation may start to appeal to him. It was Wilson who called Britain’s first-ever referendum, on confirming our EU membership.  

That will depend on whether there is a radical streak beneath Starmer’s centrist exterior. Just now he sounds more of a Blair than an Attlee. But interviewing Starmer for this newspaper in 2020 I came away with the impression of an instinctive radical. I am told he talks far more to Gordon Brown than he does to Blair.   

And it is strange but true that, despite the loathing that much of the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, has for him (unsurprisingly – he has been pretty brutal with them) he has quietly kept on some of Corbyn’s staff.  Senior Corbyn adviser Andrew Fisher wrote in Labour List that Starmer’s conference speech “had been briefed to the press as claiming the mantle of Tony Blair. In the end it owed more to former shadow chancellor John McDonnell or former leader John Smith than Tony Blair.”  

Blair could never have said, as Starmer did in Liverpool: “If they want to fight us on redistribution, if they want to fight us on workers’ rights… we will take them on – and we will win”. 

Starmer’s ambitions will be limited by the chaos he looks likely to inherit. But in order to finance his creation of a National Wealth Fund intended to invest billions in green businesses, he would tax the rich as well as repealing anti-union laws, regulating landlords and water companies, and partly bringing the railways and energy into public ownership.

If he can do all that, then a return to the EU must, in the long term, be on the cards.

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