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Why does Starmer want to make Brexit work?

The latest scandals and gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty

Sir Keir Starmer’s attempt to win over Daily Express readers by nailing his colours to the threadbare Brexit flag – making it clear he wouldn’t countenance even rejoining the single market, the customs union or allowing a return to freedom of movement – only came about after the Labour leader was rebuffed by the Daily Mail.

“Starmer’s press team offered the piece on spec to us, but that was naive as Ted Verity and Paul Dacre regard him as the devil incarnate and wanted nothing to do with it,” says my man in the Mail newsroom. “I guess they then offered it to the Express as it had been written, but I wonder if it was worth it for all the opprobrium it got him from his own side, and the Express hardly has our firepower.”

The intemperate piece – in which Starmer accused the EU of “nicking our dinner money” on the basis of a deal he had himself voted for – was widely criticised by Lib Dem, Green and SNP politicians, with even some Labour supporters joining in. Express readers appeared at best cynical about Starmer’s attempt to win them round, with one writing in the online comments: “Starmer had his fingers crossed when he said it and he wants to rejoin as soon as he can achieve it.”

Starmer was clearly trying the old Tony Blair playbook. In the years leading up to his election as prime minister he managed to cultivate an unlikely friendship with Sir David English, at the time the editor of the Daily Mail. “The two men would lunch together, and, once, English was seen applauding a speech Blair had made at a Labour conference,” says my insider at the Mail. “Of course, we never actually came out for Labour, but it was certainly the case that we gave Blair a relatively easy ride.”

Starmer’s piece was especially awkward for his frontbencher David Lammy, who barely five years ago told this newspaper: “The fact my party is putting economics at the centre of its response to Brexit means it must surely, in the end, want to remain in the single market.”

My disclosure last week that Tom Tugendhat held shares in companies awarded £17.5m worth of public sector contracts appears to have prompted the security minister to rein back on his business activities. On the day the story was published, he applied to have his consultancy firm Lashkar struck off the books at Companies House. Tugendhat had reported in April’s update to the register of ministers’ interests that Lashkar, which was £79,029 in the black in 2021, was being closed down, though there was an expectation that he would still provide figures at the end of April. The formal application to strike the company off the register now means this will no longer be necessary.

With his health inevitably an issue at the age of 92, Rupert Murdoch is said to be keen to demonstrate to the world he is still breathing by holding his summer party as usual in London this month.

Last year’s event was a relatively subdued affair at the Serpentine Gallery, with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove predictably among the toadies who turned out, even though it clashed with the Tories’ summer fundraising party – and of course most of the nonagenarian tycoon’s editors and executives. 

It would be surprising if Rishi Sunak – who continues to meet regularly with Murdoch executives – doesn’t attend this year’s event, but it will present a dilemma for Sir Keir Starmer. Labour leaders have in the past turned out for the party, but, while Starmer is keen to ingratiate himself with Murdoch – he has controversially written for the Sun – he will also be reluctant to antagonise his natural base.

After being kicked out of the Tory Party for comparing Covid vaccines to the Holocaust, Andrew Bridgen now sits as North West Leicestershire’s Reclaim MP, stubbornly resisting calls from opposition parties for a by-election. Bridgen predicted other members of his former party would also be won over by the dubious charms of his leader, Laurence Fox, but so far, unstartlingly, the two oddballs remain in splendid isolation.

Bridgen has been spotted in the Commons involved in periodic conversations with the Christchurch MP Sir Christopher Chope, who has certainly been less than loyal to Rishi Sunak. He called on Sunak to hold a general election shortly after being installed as prime minister, saying it was the only way to stop infighting in the party, and, after the local election results, he went on record as saying: “The Conservatives made themselves so unpopular that the people wanted to vote for anybody that wasn’t a Conservative.”

Chope may be rebellious, but he is not suicidal. The 76-year-old MP has announced he intends to fight Christchurch again at the next election under the Conservative banner.

As obsessed as it is about Phillip Schofield, the BBC still has some great journalists, only they aren’t allowed out much. John Simpson, the corporation’s world affairs editor for 35 years, only gets to front Unspun World, which goes out on the graveyard shift at 11.15pm after Newsnight on Wednesdays. Its budget is so small that Simpson is confined to chatting to other BBC correspondents in a central London studio.

Why are the BBC not making more of him? “John bravely put his head above the parapet by criticising the corporation for giving air-time to too many Brexiteers,” whispers one admiring colleague. “He also made little secret of his own pro-Europe views. He’s an institution and therefore unsackable, but the powers-that-be want the viewers to see and hear him as little as possible.”

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