It was only last year that Keir Starmer emerged as a figurehead for Britain’s anti-Brexit movement, pushing a reluctant Jeremy Corbyn into backing a second referendum on EU membership.
Yet Sir Keir — who succeeded Mr Corbyn as opposition Labour party leader in April and now faces Boris Johnson in the House of Commons every week — is selling the prime minister’s very own message: “Get Brexit Done.”
That phrase helped Mr Johnson win scores of Conservative seats and return to Downing Street as prime minister with a generous majority in the general election last December. That was because it found favour in the former Labour heartlands where there was majority support for leaving the EU: from Dudley in the West Midlands to Bishop Auckland in Durham, north-east England.
To try to claw those “red wall” seats back from the Tories at the next election — still four years away — Sir Keir is now playing down his previous support for remaining in the bloc.
The main plank of this strategy is to admit that Brexit cannot be reversed. “I accept that the Leave-Remain divide is over. The country needs — and wants — to move on . . . from this torturous debate,” Sir Keir said earlier this week in an article for Conservative-supporting newspaper the Sunday Telegraph.
On Tuesday he told the annual conference of the Trades Union Congress that the Tories were wrongly “reopening old wounds on Brexit”, referring to the row in the Tory party over Mr Johnson’s plan to introduce legislation which could override parts of the divorce deal he signed with the EU last year. On Monday Mr Johnson won a vote on the controversial bill but up to 30 rebel MPs in his own party could be preparing to back an amendment which limits the new law next week.
With the bill increasing the prospect of a no-deal exit at the end of the transition period on December 31, Labour is pushing for the best possible trade deal with the UK’s closest partners on the European mainland. The more those talks appear to be in jeopardy — the latest formal round ended in further stalemate last week — the more Mr Johnson may seem to have lost control of events, Sir Keir believes.
“It’s all about competence, and demonstrating that the prime minister is far from competent,” said one ally of the Labour leader.
This week Sir Keir argued that the public wanted the deal they had been promised, claiming that an agreement could be struck between London and Brussels if both sides “hunker down in good faith” to negotiate. “It is this prime minister and this Conservative government who have turned the clock back and are reigniting old rows,” he said.
The Labour leader argued that the government should be focused on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic rather than “banging on about Europe”.
Gloria De Piero, whose old seat of Ashfield was seized by the Tories in the December election (she had already stepped down) said Sir Keir’s position was “ironic” given his previous role as a high-profile Remainer.
Keir Starmer, left, and Jeremy Corbyn on a visit to the EU in 2017 © Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg
“I can see why he’s done it, it is the right thing to do, he’s done it because he wants to get into Number 10 and that road would have been easier if they had done it earlier, the losses last year were caused in part by their Remain position,” said Ms De Piero. “We would probably have lost Ashfield but there are seats with 10,000 majorities that we would not have lost.”
Sir Keir was shadow Brexit secretary when Labour gradually shifted from accepting the result of the 2016 EU referendum to calling for a second referendum — to the discomfort of Mr Corbyn. The move was designed to prevent a haemorrhaging of Labour Remain-supporters to the unambiguously anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats.
Instead a number of Brexit-backing Labour heartlands in the Midlands and northern England switched to the Conservatives, many for the first time.
Will Jennings, a professor of politics at Southampton University, has carried out recent focus groups in which both Leavers and Remainers considered Brexit to be “done”.
“If the election in December 2019 was a vote to move on, then it is in Labour’s interests to remind voters that Brexit has not been done, in the sense that it is still with us,” said Prof Jennings.
Some Remainers nevertheless have misgivings about the way in which Sir Keir has bowed to the inevitability of the UK leaving the EU.
Andrew Adonis, a former Labour cabinet minister — and a vehement pro-EU voice — said it was a mistake to presume that the party lost so many seats entirely because of Brexit. “All the evidence is that Labour lost in those areas because Jeremy Corbyn was far too leftwing and offered no leadership in any direction on Brexit,” he said, adding that Brexit could not now be washed away.
Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservative party, said Labour was “playing politics” rather than taking a principled stand. “He claims he wants to move on from Brexit, but he simply wants the British public to forget he spent the last four years trying to overturn what they voted for,” she said.