Keir Starmer has set down Labour’s Brexit red lines: if his party wins power, he will not take the UK back into the EU’s single market or customs union, nor will he restore freedom of movement with the bloc. Instead, in a speech today, he will pledge to ‘break down’ the ‘fatberg of red tape’ that Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has created for British businesses and he will get the Northern Ireland Protocol working too.
As the bulk of the UK’s political media credulously reports this preposterous posturing, interpreting it as a setback for pro-Europeans in Labour, presumably the expectation is that pro-Leave voters in marginal Red Wall seats will make their peace with the party and further turn against Johnson’s ailing Tory regime. In fact, what the episode is likely to demonstrate above all else is a crisis in Britain’s political media – especially the broadcast element which is supposed to be politically neutral – caused by the bias of its practitioners.
None of them appears to have even the slightest inkling as to why almost no decently-informed pro-Brexit voter will believe any of it. Starmer is due the kind of hyper-sceptical grilling that broadcasters routinely hand out to whichever hapless cabinet minister has been sent out to defend Johnson’s latest calamity. I wouldn’t hold your breath. This is, I suggest, due to almost all of them having voted Remain and almost exclusively socialising with others within London professional circles who voted Remain. While some may try to set personal biases aside, or even think they are doing so, many are simply incapable of it.
For instance, I have yet to hear today on any broadcast outlet the obvious observation whenever Starmer talks about Brexit: he broke his word to the British people about accepting the referendum verdict. And this was not as a rookie backbencher either.
A few days before the 2017 election, Starmer spoke for his whole party as its Brexit spokesman when he made an on-camera promise that it would accept the verdict of the 2016 referendum ‘from a position of principle’. Yet within 18 months he was agitating to overturn that verdict, arguing for a second referendum in which Labour would campaign for remain.
To the best of my knowledge, he has never been challenged about this in any broadcast interview, let alone been invited to apologise to the electorate for breaking his word. It is utterly astonishing that the vast majority of senior figures inside the UK’s political media still do not refer to this or perhaps even know about it. My theory is that it has not registered with them because overwhelmingly they view Brexit only through a ‘crisis’ or ‘disaster’ prism. No neural pathway has been formed in the consciousness of lobby journalists which transmits the obvious thought: ‘Keir Starmer is talking about Brexit again, but didn’t he lie about it first time round? So why should anyone believe what he says now?’
If Starmer emerges from the Centre for European Reform think tank, where he is making his speech, to engage seriously with questions from journalists, then there is another set of questions he should also be asked, but probably won’t be. These relate to the parts of restored UK sovereignty that he is ready to surrender again in order to ‘make Brexit work’, ‘sort out the poor deal Boris Johnson signed’, ‘secure a better deal for the British people’ or ‘tear down unnecessary barriers’, all of which he is reportedly going to pledge today.
We know from the tortuous Brexit negotiations that the EU will not willingly reopen the withdrawal agreement or trade and cooperation agreement unless there is either a gun to its head or the UK is offering something substantial in return. Starmer’s Labour is never going to go down the gun route, so one must assume the Theresa May approach of formally ruling out stuff like customs union membership while constructing devices which in reality amount to just that will be back in evidence – a Lewis Carroll Brexit in which words mean just what the Labour leader chooses them to mean.
By all means, let me know if the media surprises me and subjects Starmer’s positioning to sceptical scrutiny from the point of view of the pro-Leave voters he has previously betrayed. I am expecting instead breathless reports on the BBC and elsewhere about how he has risked angering pro-EU elements by closing off the possibility of any administration he leads heading back into the embrace of Brussels. Hollow laughter and the off switch are our only remaining protections against such guff.
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