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Starmer’s Strategic Silence on Brexit Is Not Enough

Mike Buckley argues that the Opposition must be able to provide a frank appraisal of the situation facing Brexit Britain and how the country can progress from its current state of crisis

The British national flag is lowered down outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on 31 January 2020. Photo: Zheng Huansong/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Starmer’s Strategic Silence on Brexit Is Not Enough

Mike Buckley argues that the Opposition must be able to provide a frank appraisal of the situation facing Brexit Britain and how the country can progress from its current state of crisis

During a foreign interview this week, I was asked what the arrival of Brexit meant for British democracy. The polls, asked the interviewer, show that most British people now want to stay in the EU, so why was it still going ahead? 

The interviewer was right. Half the country now thinks that the decision to leave the EU is wrong, versus 38% who agree with it. If the Government cared about the will of the people it would pause Brexit until voters had passed judgement on its plans. Instead it marches on – not just with Brexit, but to its hardest form. 

The Brexit Boris Johnson is leading bears little relation to the one sold by his Vote Leave campaign – which told voters that “Britain can leave the EU and have access to the Single Market – we’d get a better deal” – or even the “oven-ready” one sold by the Conservatives in last year’s General Election. “We have this deal,” the now Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the BBC at the time. “It is there in the political declaration – an ambitious, comprehensive trading relationship with close cooperation on security, on economic matters.” But Johnson ditched that political declaration weeks later, paving the way for tortuous negotiations. 

Lack of Scrutiny

The interviewer was right to ask me about the state of British democracy.

A severe or ‘no deal’ rupture with the EU could lead to Scottish independence, risk Northern Irish peace, mark the end of the mass market car industry, result in more expensive food and damaged relations with US and EU for years to come. 

Yet there is an almost eerie absence of opposition. The Labour Party is all but silent and – should a deal be struck – plans to vote for it. The media dutifully asks questions of Government ministers, but betrays little panic or concern. 

Labour has its reasons for wanting Brexit to disappear. It is keen to show lost Leave voters in the ‘Red Wall’ that it has learned its lesson. Should a deal be struck, this will leave it in the strange position of voting for a Conservative bill that will cause deep harm to those very Red Wall communities – something it would not conceive of doing were the bill called anything other than Brexit. 

What viewers from abroad can see clearly – an impending economic crisis and a political system ceasing to function – we see dimly, if at all. 

A recent report found that the likely number of lost manufacturing jobs in Red Wall seats under Johnson’s deal was greater than the Conservatives’ 2019 majority, but instead of taking on the role of workers’ defender, Labour sees its interest in supporting a Brexit deal it would have opposed wholeheartedly a year ago. It may come to regret its choice – it risks losing more Remain voters than Leavers gained, and making a comeback in Remain-voting Scotland harder still. 

Brexit opponents outside Parliament have also allowed themselves to be silenced. Brexiters successfully painted any discussion of serious threat – such as Nissan stating that its plant will be unsustainable under a ‘no deal’ – as ‘Project Fear’. Most have decided that it is no longer worth trying to raise the alarm.

What viewers from abroad can see clearly – an impending economic crisis and a political system ceasing to function – we see dimly, if at all. 

Even now, there is no public discussion about outstanding issues such as what level playing field rules or access to fishing waters might be acceptable or advantageous. A different Labour Party would speak in favour of keeping pace with EU labour, environment and state aid standards. A different media would educate the public and pressure the Government on the added harm Brexit will impose during the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Conservative cabinets used to speak out when they saw their leader take a course of action they deemed against the national interest, but not one member of the current Cabinet – knowing the disruption to come, the threat to the economy and international relations – is willing to publicly advocate for a Brexit deal. Some hint that they would prefer one but are too fearful of an EU-phobic Conservative Party to speak out. 

The worst case scenario is grave. A ‘no deal’ Brexit could lead to the withdrawal of inward investment, a loss of confidence in the UK as a lawful player, and the loss of political confidence of other major countries. And still, the Conservatives continue on.

A New Reality

We have arrived here because the UK political debate has gone badly wrong.

Where there should be opposition and accountability, there is silence. Abstract notions of sovereignty rule over real knowledge of international relations and economics. That is costing us and will continue to do so. 

We need urgent change, but from where?

Those who expected Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to offer more robust opposition have found the same silence as from Jeremy Corbyn – albeit for different reasons and electoral calculation. But the result is the same: the questions that should be asked are not; the alarms bells that should be raised are kept silent. 

It fell to the former Conservative Prime Minister John Major – 23 years out of power – to offer a glimpse of a different politics. His November speech was one that a different Opposition leader could have given.

“The values of liberal society are stalled, if not in retreat,” he said. “To leave the EU – to separate ourselves from our neighbours – was sold as ‘regaining sovereignty’, but it will prove to be a long and painful ball and chain on our national wellbeing. Brexit may be even more brutal than anyone expected – a wretched betrayal of what our electors were led to believe.”

Brexit being finally done will not end this crisis – in some ways it will only be the beginning. The economic harm has barely started, but its shape is clear. Parts of the country that are poor now will be poorer still – ‘levelling-up’ in reverse. How will Brexit voters react when their lives do not get better and when public services are cut further still as the tax take falls in a smaller economy? Who will explain it to them then? 

We were warned. In 2016 former Conservative advisor Garvan Walshe wrote that “Leave’s scorched-earth tactics take a huge risk with Britain. Not content to be an anti-European enemy of ‘the Brussels elite’, they’ve turned against all established wisdom and authority. Nowhere is this as dangerous as their fanning of popular anger about immigration. Because immigrants from the EU are a net fiscal benefit to us, restricting them will make the shortages people attribute to immigration worse, not better. Having whipped up this anger to try and win, they will find it directed against themselves if they do.”

That anger has long since been whipped up. The shortages will soon be upon us. In these circumstances how do we rebuild our politics?

It will be done not with silence but by politicians willing to give an honest appraisal of our plight, and with the ability to explain the state we’re in, and how to go from here to somewhere better.

Building that argument, and emboldening those voices, is our challenge. 

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