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‘Make Brexit work’: Starmer’s three little words won’t convince anyone

The Labour leader’s agonisingly slow creep towards the right Brexit policy goes on - and his latest move will infuriate Remainers

Image: The New European

If fortune favours the brave, she is unlikely to be smiling down on Keir Starmer anytime soon. The Labour Party leader’s latest attempt to get to grips with Brexit is characteristically cautious rather than courageous. 

In a widely trailed speech to be delivered at the Centre for European Reform on Monday night, Starmer will accuse Boris Johnson’s government of creating “a hulking ‘fatberg’ of red tape,” and compare Brexit to a “wet-wipe island” found in the river Thames.

He will say that the Brexit deal created a “mess”, with wages and growth stagnating and public services broken. 

So far, so statement-of-the-bleeding-obvious. But does that mean we can expect a dynamic action plan to deal with what Starmer’s fellow Labour Party member and London mayor Sadiq Khan called the “biggest piece of self-inflicted harm ever done to a country”? 

Not quite. Starmer, who is rewriting the SAS motto to read “who doesn’t dare wins”, will also say that a Labour government would not seek to take the UK back into the single market or customs union or reintroduce freedom of movement. 

Don’t worry, though: Labour will still be able to “make Brexit work”, according to Starmer. Quite apart from the cold dread that any three-word vapid slogan must inspire in every British heart these days, it is also hard to fathom just how you can re-up a giant mountain of used wet wipes. 

Starmer will reportedly say: “There are some who say ‘We don’t need to make Brexit work. We need to reverse it’. I couldn’t disagree more. Because you cannot move forward or grow the country or deliver change or win back the trust of those who have lost faith in politics if you’re constantly focused on the arguments of the past… It would simply be a recipe for more division, it would distract us from taking on the challenges facing people and it would ensure Britain remained stuck for another decade.”

Unless, of course, the reasons you are stuck are inherent in the decision that you refuse to revisit. Or as author and philosopher AC Grayling put it on Twitter: “You’re driving from London to Leeds. You find you’re on the M4 to Bristol. You’re Keir Starmer. ‘Oh well, this is the wrong road, the wrong direction. But I’ll just keep going. No point in turning back & going in the right direction.’”

If Boris Johnson’s cakeism has brought the British economy to its knees through Brexit, then Starmer might be accused of being an accessory after the fact: he’s now tasted the cake (as we all have), he knows it’s foul but he’s still serving it to his guests rather than binning it and breaking out the Pringles. 

This is not to minimize how difficult this issue is for the Labour Party – one-third of its supporters voted Leave in 2016 – but with the tide of public opinion turning, one might have hoped for something more robust from Starmer. 

Some commentators were sympathetic to the dilemma of a man still picking up the pieces from that disastrous 2019 electoral showing. 

“The most important thing for now isn’t so much the content but the fact that he’s talking about Brexit at all, and developing a Brexit policy. That in itself is a big step forward for Labour and for UK politics. The extent to which Brexit has been almost taboo is absurd,” tweeted Chris Grey, emeritus professor of organization studies at Royal Holloway.

And yet, surely we have long passed that AA moment where naming the problem – “My name is the UK, and I’m a Brexit sufferer” – is half the battle. The damage is already profound, and increasingly well-documented. 

The OECD says UK growth will be worse than any other G20 country, except Russia, next year. And the Bank of England expects a recession coupled with wage inflation because of the shortage of workers caused by Brexit. Brexit has cost the public finances around £30bn while recent analysis suggested the economy is now more than 5% smaller than it would have been if the UK had not left the EU.

Ahead of his speech on Monday night, Starmer tweeted: “We must focus on the opportunities of the future, not the divisions of the past.” And given the Red Wall swing to the Conservatives after Brexit, one can understand his hesitancy at reopening this particular can of worms. 

But as any wizard will tell you, not naming He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named doesn’t stop You-Know-Who from showing up and wreaking havoc. 

Even some Conservatives are beginning to say the unspeakable. Tory MP Tobias Ellwood has said there should be a rethink about rejoining the single market, claiming that this Brexit is not “the Brexit most people imagined.” That’s the thing about unicorns – they always look shorter in real life. 

The public disappointment is real. The number of people who believe their daily lives are worse since leaving the EU is now 45%, up from 30% a year ago, according to a June poll by IPSOS and the EU-UK forum. Among Leave voters that number has more than doubled from 10% to 22%. 

Starmer will outline some concrete ideas in his speech – he would like a veterinary agreement with the EU to ease agrifood checks, mutual recognition of product standards and a deal to facilitate short business trips and help musicians tour. He would also seek to end the standoff with Brussels over the Northern Ireland Protocol through negotiation – a much better approach admittedly than Johnson’s unilateral rewriting of part of an international treaty he signed.

And for some Starmer’s plan has merit, even if the support can sound less like a ringing endorsement and more like an acceptance of the need, at the very least, for damage limitation. David Henig, head of the UK Trade Policy Project and a former official at the Department for International Trade, noted that a government that prioritised regulatory stability and “at least workable relations with the EU” would be a huge relief. 

He tweeted: “The really big question on which there has been virtually no serious thinking in London or around the EU is – what is a stable long-term relationship between the UK and EU? Some believe there is none, at least for a long time, but I’d like to hope we can do better than that.”

It would appear that even in a best case scenario, Take Back Control has morphed into doing anything to Make It Stop. But for many, it is Starmer’s caution that should stop.

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