The Labour leader has changed his stance constantly since the referendum
After its short life as a caterpillar, a cocoon holds all the cells of the larva as it disintegrates into a primal soup. And yet, quite remarkably, a butterfly — despite being wholly different in almost every aspect — retains memories of its earlier state.
It is from this biological process that we receive the word “metamorphosis”, a phrase often used in politics. And yet if you read Sir Keir Starmer writing for the Daily Express earlier this week, you would have presumed he has no recollection of his previous life as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary. The metamorphosis of the Europhile QC into a beer-drinking Brexiteer eclipses even the greatest miracle of nature.
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“Britain’s future is outside the EU,” the Labour leader wrote with clear-eyed certainty on Thursday. “Not in the single market, not in the customs union, not with a return to freedom of movement. Those arguments are in the past, where they belong.” Four years ago, Starmer would have found that sentence unimaginable.
Starmer’s newfound admiration for Brexit is without precedent. It is akin to Margaret Thatcher suddenly championing public ownership, or Jeremy Corbyn becoming an apostle for US foreign policy. It would be like Tony Blair admonishing PFI, or Gordon Brown declaring that central bank independence was wrong all along. We find none of these scenarios plausible because, for better or worse, each of these figures has a certain political essence. And yet, with Starmer, such a volte face has come to feel mundane.
In the 2017 general election, the Labour Party increased its share of the vote by 10%, depriving then-PM Theresa May of a majority. This was possible because the party neutralised the issue of Brexit, moving the debate onto more profitable terrain such as public services and elderly care. This was obviously necessary to anyone but a fanatic: “Leave” had prevailed in 400 constituencies a year earlier.
What happened next will go down as among the greatest self-inflicted wounds in political history. Labour, having said it would respect the Brexit vote, decided to embroil themselves in parliamentary wrangling for the next two years, before offering the most incomprehensible position imaginable. This consisted in negotiating a new deal against which certain Labour MPs could campaign in a second referendum.
Leading the charge of the Remainer Light Brigade was Starmer, inexplicably promoted to Labour’s Brexit brief. Needless to say, his bona fides on the issue were more slippery than a frog smothered in vaseline.
Starmer had campaigned for Remain in 2016 before proceeding to accept the result. Then, a few months later, he backed Owen Smith for Labour leader, having called on Corbyn to resign, with Smith himself backing a second referendum. After Smith’s defeat, and Labour’s surprise performance the following year, Starmer accepted Brexit once more. Later, by 2019, he was declaring that Labour was indeed the party of Remain. Today, the Leader of the Opposition advocates for what he would have described as the hardest Brexit possible just a few years ago.
At each turn Starmer’s position can be explained by one thing: career advancement. One can only suspect that remains the case. Indeed, it can even be argued that Starmer set Labour up to fail when it came to Brexit prior to 2019.
Theresa May’s Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell certainly thought so. He recalled how Starmer seemed utterly intent on scotching any kind of compromise. This was so obvious that Barwell tried an experiment, giving the shadow Brexit secretary a proposal copied from something Starmer himself had written. Starmer “objected to the language on customs” in one of the bilateral documents. “I pointed out that we had lifted it from his letter of April 22 — he was objecting to his own policy,” Barwell writes in his memoir.
What that moment revealed to Barwell was that, for Starmer, the idea of a negotiation was entirely performative. When I spoke to former Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, he said the same, asserting that a deal had been there but that Starmer had been the single biggest impediment. McCluskey viewed Starmer’s games as cynical positioning. One can only presume the same is happening now.
Starmer is, despite other criticisms, a talented politician. He is ruthless and clear-sighted with regard to incremental steps in achieving longer-term objectives. But this can be to the detriment of systematic thinking, not to mention politically short-sighted. How will Labour sell a future customs union five years from now if the party is in government after 2024 and fails to make “Brexit work”, as Starmer insists is possible? Wouldn’t that be an extraordinary waste of political capital, with the electorate far less sympathetic then than now?
One has to suspect so, but just as with the ultimately destructive politicking over a second referendum, that will be a mess for someone else to clean up. What matters for Starmer is that he personally triumphs. The rest is noise.