Until now I’d only ever heard Keir Starmer described by five words, and three of them were “forensic”. We’d also had “moral” and “inscrutable”, but now we can add a new one – “ruthless”. Even his biggest supporters were taken by surprise by his sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, and he probably surprised himself.
Up until now, he’s had a pretty easy ride: watch the Tories mess up, ask a couple of sensible questions, watch the policy unravel and move on to their next shambles. Now he’s attacked head-on one of the few issues that was always going to decide the fate of Labour as a party fit for power. It was a risk, and it could still backfire terribly, but the greater risk was doing nothing.
The only other issue Starmer has ignored so far is Brexit. For the moment, Labour is steering clear. Apart from refusing to back calls for a transition period, the former shadow Brexit minister has barely mentioned the subject and has simply said that the opposition party will hold the government to account on its promise to strike a deal.
With Keir setting the agenda on every aspect of Covid policy – the NHS, track and trace, care homes, child poverty, schools reopening and so on – won’t the Tories breathe a sigh of relief if we move away from their litany of failure to what is considered their single success, “Get Brexit Done”?
What could possibly be gained from the leader, a lefty London Remainer, dredging up the subject that causes everyone to roll their eyes with boredom? Everything points to Labour saying nothing. Why, then, do I think that conclusion is wrong?
First, there are new things to say. You wouldn’t know this from how the media report it and how people define themselves, but we left the EU on January 31st. Brexit got done. We are no longer Leavers and Remainers, we are pro-deal or anti-deal. The government needs to be making the case right now for the policy they’re pursuing, which seems to place them in the latter group.
Second, when we look at the cavalier attitude of the government towards losing trade deals and jobs, at the start of a terrible new recession, the road leads us back, via Barnard Castle, to the PM-in-all-but-name himself. There’s a persuasive argument that every day Dominic Cummings is allowed to stay in his job another couple of percentage points are added to Labour’s electability, but we’re years from an election and his policy of hostility to the EU is potentially disastrous for the country. If Cummings goes, Johnson’s position is seriously weakened and, as with Covid, people will turn to Starmer for reassurance.
Third is Scotland. People in Labour are asking “how do we win Scotland back?”. This feels a little premature, but at the very least we should be making common cause with Scotland for the shocking way that the government has ignored the will of their people.
Fourth, the often-repeated argument about not interrupting your enemy when they’re making a mistake. That was sensible when Ed Miliband was in charge and Ukip was tearing pieces out of the Tories, but it didn’t work even then. It was disastrous through 2018, when the Tories were offering the country no deal or extremely hard deal and we refused to offer a sensible alternative. Now it smells of moral cowardice.
That, for me, is the main reason for talking about Brexit. Whether or not Labour gains politically from it should be secondary to ensuring disaster is averted. That is Starmer’s policy on Covid – constructive opposition – and it can be applied equally here.
Herd immunity is a classic Brexit notion and it collapsed almost instantly when it met reality. Austerity was blown away in a moment by a government that understood that the only way for the NHS to cope with coronavirus was to spend money on it. Force any rampant Tory Brexiteer to explain why we don’t need new infrastructure and why there’ll be no problems crashing out or breaking our pledges on the Irish border, and their arguments fall away in seconds.
Brexit is still the most toxic issue of our lifetimes. It has arguably destroyed the Conservative Party, ridding it of its traditional base of business, defence and security supporters, and turning it into Ukip with MPs. Even with its massive majority, the government looks shaky on every issue except its single remaining reason to exist – fighting old culture wars. Even here, its default position on BLM is looking tired and racist to its core of supporters. Culture wars are all they’ve got, it’s how they keep Brexit as a battleground. Without it, they are nothing.