Starmer will have to wait before breaking the Brexit omerta
Alastair Campbell advised Tony Blair through successive landslide election victories in the UK. He believes that the Labor Party should point directly, not just elliptically, to the failure of Brexit.
Matthew Parris of The Times is the columnist I admire above all others. He is urging the Lib Dems to drop cover and run as the anti-Brexit party.
Ford and other automakers are bringing valuable jobs to the nation’s most disadvantaged regions. Once so tight-lipped on Brexit, some are now calling on the government to review the terms of Brexit.
It would be risky, not to say impudent, to label these distinguished people as wrong. These handsome people are wrong. The time will come when politicians can tell voters that Brexit was an ideological turkey, that it will make Britain poorer than it needs to be, and that it won’t even act as a retreat from the world to reduce immigration. That time is not far off. But not now. Not quite. And timing is everything.
Polls show that most voters – including almost by definition some who voted to leave – regret Brexit. But there is a difference between knowing you were wrong and being told you were wrong. The first experience is not that difficult to handle. The second may appear to be a violation. Perhaps towards the end of this decade, voters won’t mind hearing from politicians that Brexit was a mistake. Until then, they should be left alone. Make the point too soon and people tend to shrink into a defensive crouch and never come out.
The political class will have no more opportunities to fix this. A misplaced gesture can become a reference point and a rallying cry for the other party. Remember the big Brexit sabotage of 2023?
A few years can change everything. In 1974, Prime Minister Ted Heath asked for a mandate to reduce union power. The voters refused. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher made much the same request and won. what was the difference His Hegelian, world-historical greatness? Maybe if you believe in such things. But the real evidence is also piling up – strike after strike, inflationary pay round after inflationary pay round – that something has to change. A problem that was chronic at the beginning of the decade was acute at the end. Things had to get worse to get better.
Politicians need to give up their creepy omerta on Brexit. But doing so now would be in good faith. Politics is very much the art of timing. Charles de Gaulle did not break his heart a pieds-noirs at the beginning. He waited for evidence to mount that a French Algeria was untenable. Costs were allowed to rise.
So, if not now, when? When will Labor stop walking on eggshells around the central issue of British politics? On the condition that there can be no precision, here’s my guess: not the upcoming general election, but the one after it, assuming a normal-length parliament. It should feel like a bow to the inevitable: almost an afterthought, really.
Waiting is not free, I know. Britain is giving up exports every day. Politicians with demonstrably bad judgment avoid scrutiny. In a fair world, Rishi Sunak wouldn’t be able to pose as a hard-headed, hard-working man. The Labor Party would appoint the first prime minister who is a doctrinal supporter of Brexit. (Theresa May and Liz Truss voted Remain. Boris Johnson was a late and perhaps opportunistic convert.)
Sir Keir Starmer would chase you from here to Santa Monica. Which EU laws bind Great Britain, Prime Minister? Do you agree with the fiscal inspector about the costs of Brexit? How many hospitals has he given back to the nation? Why can’t we all have ‘incredibly special’ access to the EU for Northern Ireland, Prime Minister? Sunak projects the over-enthusiasm of a children’s TV presenter. These questions can highlight the underlying uncertainty.
But – it’s surreal that this has to be said – Starmer is good at politics. He didn’t get to the edge of the prime ministership by misunderstanding things. He senses that much of Britain would interpret an attack on Brexit as an attack on itself. A voter who knows he took a turn for the worse in 2016 is still sick to his stomach to be told that.
That day will come. Perhaps it will be safe for a Labor intellectual to write a book with a similar name Sinful men and women. It will tell the story of a nation driven into the biggest unforced error since Suez by clumsy politicians, detail-avoiding journalists, credulous, out-of-their-depth covers, and the perpetual college students of the libertarian think tank world. Release date? 2028 at the earliest.