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This is the secret plan for Keir Starmer's big Brexit U-turn
For Keir's eyes only.
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I will be the last Remainer in the jungle.
20 years after the Brexit wars have ended, anthropologists will discover me deep within the forests of Brussels, surrounded by straightened bananas, clothed only in GDPR cookie notices, and babbling under my breath something about “meaningful votes” and “backstops”.
As far as I am concerned, Guy Verhofstadt is too moderate on the issue of European integration. And ‘FBPE’-Twitter isn’t embarrassing enough1.
So you might imagine that I’d be rather upset with Keir Starmer, as of late.
The Labour leader has been doing his best to distance himself from weirdos like me, and has taken an increasingly harsh position on Freedom of Movement, calling it a “red line” for him in any negotiations with Brussels.
And just last month, Starmer said in an interview that he didn’t think re-joining the Single Market would benefit the British economy.
Surely I should be furious? Not least because I’ve already gone on record saying that I think that some of his other ideas are really, really good.
However, I'm not actually mad. I know that with his claim about the Single Market, he is merely using a clever political tactic known as “lying”. And from his perspective, it is all in service of a greater cause: Making sure that Labour win the next election2.
Like it or not, there’s a grim logic to the deceit. He’s currently around 20 points clear in the polls, and as long as he doesn’t fuck anything up for the next 18 months, he’s probably on track for a sizeable Labour majority. So why risk gambling given that most of the crucial target seats – the fabled ‘red wall’ – voted overwhelmingly for Brexit?
But if this strategy pays off, there is something awkward that Starmer will have to reckon with. Once he reaches Number 10, he’s going to have to face the music and execute one of the biggest U-turns in political history, and lock Britain back into alignment with the European Union.
So, let’s make a secret plan for how to make it work.
Look, I don’t want to write about Europe. You don’t want to read about Europe. Everyone is sick of Brexit chat, but annoyingly it is still important. So take the medicine below and then perhaps go and read my take on The Woke Stuff or why we need to build more luxury homes for millionaires as a palate cleanser. And don’t forget to subscribe (for free) and follow me on Twitter, to get more of This Sort Of Thing directly in your inbox.
The case for the U-turn
The first and most obvious thing to do is to sigh heavily and ask “why?”
Why does Starmer need to burn through all of the goodwill he will have accrued during the election campaign, and spend his time executing a massive, embarrassing U-turn on Europe?
The reason is that by the time he gets into office, he won’t have much of a choice. It’s incredibly tedious to re-litigate the arguments, but it’s clear now that Brexit has been a disaster. And it is literally being treated like one, in some cases.
From the entire Northern Ireland issue, to the sluggish economy, to the shortage of workers in key professions, a grab-bag of Britain’s most annoying problems are to varying degrees exacerbated by Brexit. It should be almost banal to point this out3.
This means that if whoever is in power is going to be successful, they will have to do something about it. And once they get past the awkwardness of admitting the actual cause of the problem, there is an obvious and clear solution: Moving back towards a closer relationship with Europe.
For example, it’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that literally almost everyone who knows what they are talking about agrees that taking Britain closer to Europe will improve our current, tepid economic prospects.
This, incidentally, is what makes Starmer’s stated reason for rejecting the Single Market so funny. Officially, Starmer’s line is that re-joining it would subject business to further years of uncertainty. But this doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny given the existing economic uncertainty caused by the current status quo, along with the fact that even Jeremy Hunt admits that Single Market membership would provide an economic boost4.
There are strategic capital-P political reasons for Starmer to reverse ferret too: I’m not an economist, but I’m pretty sure that if Starmer wants to actually deliver on the “green prosperity” agenda, having an economy that is growing, where everyone is feeling a little better off, is going to make the necessary spending and tax rises a little more palatable5.
So simply put, pointing Britain back towards Europe is the right thing to do on the merits and a Keir Starmer-led government, whether he likes it or not, is probably going to have to make it happen.
What The Plan should aim for
So far in this essay6 I’ve been infuriatingly vague. I’ve talked about “moving closer to Europe”, but what exactly do I mean? What do I think Starmer should actually be trying to achieve?
This is a hard question because obviously our relationship with the European Union involves, well, Europe. So should we enter into any negotiations to, for example, join the Single Market, we’ll have to twist the arms of the 27 countries we jilted as we ran head-first into a self-destructive national nervous breakdown.
However, arguably the details of the arrangement don’t actually matter all that much7. The fewer tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade there are, the more economic activity can and will take place. And the reality is that basically any closer relationship with the European Union is better than what we have now - or what could possibly be achieved by the current government8.
But this doesn’t mean that when plotting out The Plan, we can’t make some reasonable assumptions about where negotiations between a Starmer government and the EU might end up.
For example, I think it is pretty clear that any prospect of full-on rejoining the EU just isn’t going to happen, at least in the short-to-medium term. This is for both predictable domestic reasons (“You’re overturning the referendum!”) and EU-negotiation reasons (do they really want to deal with our bullshit again?).
As such, I think9 the landing zone that Starmer should aim for is something that looks a bit like a Norway or a Switzerland deal with Europe, in which Britain tacitly accepts participation in the “four freedoms” that are foundational to the European Economic Area.
This in itself would not be easy to achieve for the reasons stated above, but I think it is a plausible outcome of the negotiations. Especially if we can persuade the EU to make some cosmetic concessions, such as by giving the deal a special snowflake name to make it sound bespoke10, or even making the deal Swiss-style, in the form of a mess of dozens of separate treaties, instead of an overall institutional arrangement11.
In any case, shaping the deal with Europe might turn out to be the easy bit. What Starmer really needs to worry about is how to sell the deal, once concluded, back to the British people.
Three steps to victory
Okay, now for the good stuff. Here’s the secret plan for how we sell the U-turn back to the British people - without exploding the rest of Starmer’s agenda and future political career in the process.
Step 1: We Remainers shut the fuck up.
This first step is absolutely crucial: We Remainers should not talk about Europe before the next election. I cannot stress this enough12.
Let’s be real. We know that regardless of whatever words come out of his mouth, Starmer is on our side on this issue. He demonstrated his Euro-cred under the ancien regime, when he campaigned for Remain and later pushed Labour to support a second referendum.
And if you’re still not convinced that I’m reading his mind correctly, remember that virtually everything about him screams ‘Remainer’. He’s a former human rights barrister, and he lives in Kentish Town, for goodness sake. He is the living embodiment of a man who would put a £10 note in the bucket at the farmer’s market that’s collecting for refugees.
So he may as well do a big, pantomime wink at the camera whenever he tries to talk tough on Europe, given how wildly inauthentic it is13.
He’s not even that good at hiding it – as demonstrated by this soundbite, where he unconvincingly pivots from the awkward topic of Europe to the thing he wanted to talk about all along.
So in Starmer, our team already have an ally for our pro-European cause. And this means we can be smart: We need to reduce the salience of Europe in voters’ minds by not talking about it, and we can all play a part in it.
Activists should refrain from forcing candidates into taking unpopular positions on Europe publicly. Twitter opinion-havers should not drive a news agenda that talks about Britain’s place in Europe. And self-aggrandising lawyers should not think about launching doomed legal bids to overturn the referendum.
The best thing we can do is maintain strict radio silence on the issue of Europe until Agent Starmer is safely installed inside 10 Downing Street.
Step 2: Create a vessel through which to tell the U-turn story
Once Starmer is Prime Minister, he’ll have to actually execute the U-turn. This is the hard part. It will be impossible to do without taking political damage, but it need not be completely catastrophic.
For Starmer, the critical task is to avoid earning a reputation as a liar or a flip-flopper. Because once the labels have stuck, they are hard to remove. So Labour needs to make sure that they tell the story of the U-turn in the right way, and create a credible permission structure for Starmer and his colleagues to plausibly make the pivot.
For example, if I were Starmer I’d establish a cross-party “grand commission” on UK-EU relations, and task it with establishing the best way forward with Europe in terms of improving Britain’s economic performance.
I’d then stack it with the biggest beasts I can wrangle. Perhaps Gordon Brown and John Major could jointly chair it? And it would definitely need a couple of (non-mad) Leave campaign supporters to give it some credibility (Umm, Michael Gove14? Or perhaps Rishi will be looking for a new gig after the election?15).
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, hardcore Brexiteers would immediately brand it as a Remainer stitch-up or a fait accompli – but Starmer was never going to win them over anyway. This isn’t about winning them over.
The real goal of the commission is to create a plausible vessel through which to do the politically-toxic-but-important thing. As I wrote a while back, taking an issue out of normal political control can sometimes be effective16 as a much wider spectrum of politicians will have blood on the knife.
Perhaps most crucially, such a commission would act as a politically convenient bucket to throw any questions about Europe into. Starmer should announce it before the election, so that during the campaign, whenever anyone asks about anything Brexit-related, he can play the “I’m going to wait for the commission to report” card and desperately try to move the conversation on to other terrain17.
And now here’s the best bit: The outcome of the commission is basically a foregone conclusion. Starmer wouldn’t even have to stack the commission with loyalists or super-hardcore Remainers. He wouldn’t have to. Even if the commission did it’s job completely objectively, it would deliver the aforementioned correct-on-the-merits conclusion that Britain should get closer to Europe to improve the economy.
After the commission has reported back, when he – or any other MPs – are asked why they did a big 180 on Europe, they can point to the recommendations of the commission, and say they are deferring to it’s expertise.
This will help tell the story of the pivot without Starmer having to give the ‘true’ answer, that he was opportunistically pretending to be sceptical about Europe before the election to avoid scaring Leave voters, and now is trying to actually do the right thing.
“I’m not being a hypocrite, I’m just following the recommendations of this august, cross-party group of politicians who have studied the issue carefully,” he can say.
Step 3: Sell the deal as “fixing” the problem so we can forget about it
Once the deal has been struck, the final step is for Starmer to sell it back to a sceptical British public. This will be the time of maximum short-term danger, and like I say, Starmer will take political damage for doing it. That is unavoidable. It will be impossible to downplay and the Tories will do their best to make hay out of it. But it doesn’t have to be fatal.
From a communications perspective, Starmer can learn a lot from how the 2019 election was partially won thanks to the slogan “Get Brexit Done”.
I’m pretty confident in saying that something Starmer has in his favour is that regardless of how people voted in 2016, everyone is absolutely sick of talking about Brexit. We can see this in actual empirical data, as according to Opinium, 65% of voters think that Brexit is going badly (and only 21% say well).
So I think the way to frame the U-turn is by positioning it as a “fix”, to something that is widely acknowledge as a “problem”. Starmer should aim to tell a story about how he has “fixed” Brexit, and made it work, and that he has “fixed” our relationship with Europe, so that businesses can trade more easily, which will boost jobs and the economy18.
With the fixed-vs-broken frame, it’s quite easy to write PMQs fanfiction about how Starmer could fight back attacks. “Unlike Rishi, Truss, Johnson, and May,” Starmer will be able to claim, “Labour actually got Brexit done – we fixed the problem and now we can focus on hospitals and schools…”
In fact, we can already see the germs of this approach in real life, as last weekend Starmer explained on the Laura Kuenssberg programme that he wanted to “repair” the existing deal Britain has with Europe.
How to get away with it
I make it all sound so easy. But the best laid plans can be easily go awry. After all, this is The Labour Party we’re talking about, which to paraphrase Lenin19, is only ever three tweets away from chaos.
The enormous elephant in the room is, of course, Freedom of Movement.
Any improved deal that Starmer strikes with Europe is going to mean that Britain has to accept the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital and people. This means that the Starmer Deal will necessarily involve reneging on what is often characterised as the big take-home message of the referendum: That we’ve had enough of foreigners.
Leaving aside the fact that immigration is Actually Good on the merits, this will be a valid criticism. As much as we Remainers may protest that the Starmer Deal still complies with the letter of the referendum outcome (“we’re still outside the EU, after all”), it definitely is a break with the spirit of the referendum outcome (“it is bad that people from other countries can come to live here”).
As such, there will always be some people who are never going to be happy with the Starmer Deal. and it likely it will hurt Starmer’s standing a bit. But I think there are a couple of things Labour can do to survive the turbulence.
First, I’d rebrand “Freedom of Movement” as “Market-Led Movement”, and co-opt the pro-business vocabulary of the right: It’s time to put an end to government commissars writing visa quotas for different professions. We should free our great British businesses to make the hiring decisions that are best for them – not wait for bureaucrats in Whitehall to decide. Market-Led Movement is a pro-business policy to get our economy moving20.
Secondly, and this is the part where I feel inherently squeamish, Starmer should make a point of performatively talking tough on the “small boats” issue, which is nothing to do with Freedom of Movement, but touches upon the same vibes in voters’ minds, and is actually something the British government will have some control over.
Solving this problem is important, because the big, compelling slogan during the referendum campaign wasn’t “We hate foreigners” but “Take back control”. And I would bet that a significant proportion of hostility to immigration doesn’t come from straight-up xenophobia towards the nice Polish family down the street, but instead is motivated by the constant drum-beat of stories about people illegally crossing the Channel21. Making it feel almost like an issue of fairness, of sorts22.
So anything Starmer can do to reduce the number of incoming boats will create more of a semblance of “control”. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this needs to mean being theatrically grotesque with threats of deportations to Rwanda or the use of wave machines23.
For example, one obvious place to start is with some of the more sensible ideas that Rishi is already proposing, like providing the Border Force with more resources to process asylum claims more quickly (which I imagine is something actual refugees would like too).
And what’s nice is that once the Starmer Deal has been struck, it should actually help on this front too: Perhaps warmer relations could persuade France to let Britain set up asylum claim processing centres on the continent, saving refugees from a perilous journey in the first place24.
And if the deal helps grow the economy, then there will be more money to invest in public services. This will reduce the extent to which doctors appointments and other interactions with the state (either correctly or incorrectly) feel like a zero-sum fight with the scary foreigners25.
No pain, no gain
So this is the secret plan that Keir Starmer and his Labour colleagues should execute to realign us with Europe. It might sound crazy – but it’d be the right thing to do, and I’m optimistic the politics of the U-turn don’t have to be completely devastating.
In fact, we’re already starting to see cracks in one of the core assumptions that underpin The Plan: That it will be politically costly if Starmer is perceived as nudging Britain back towards Europe.
A slew or recent polls all report the same thing, that public opinion is shifting. Even Conservative voters now believe the costs of Brexit outweigh the benefits. According to an Opinium poll, albeit one funded by pro-EU campaign group Best for Britain, by a margin of 33% to 22%, people who plan to vote Conservative at the next election believe Brexit has caused more problems than it has solved.
And similarly, according to analysis by NatCen Social Research, polling now similarly fairly consistently leans heavily towards Remain/Re-join, with the biggest shift in sentiment among 2016 Leave voters.
Of course, this is just hypotheticals getting polled. Who knows what would happen if Brexit and the possibility of actually re-joining became a live issue again, not least because of the large number of “don’t knows”.
But I think this is fairly clear evidence that the tectonic plates that have set the terms of the entire Brexit nightmare are slowly shifting26. Which means that if Agent Starmer is bold enough to execute The Plan and put Britain back on a path towards the European Union, the political blowback may not be as dire as feared.
Phew! You reached the end! Now theoretically you should shut the fuck up and tell no one the secret plan. But what I actually want you to do is to share this post if you enjoyed it, and don’t forget to sign up (for free!) if you’d like more burning hot political takes direct to your inbox. If you’re feeling really nice, pre-pledge a future paid subscription for if I ever launch a paid tier. And do follow me on Twitter (@Psythor) for micro-takes.
It’s just one of those lies that you tell for the greater good, like when Obama pretended to oppose same-sex marriage, or when you pretend anecdotes about other peoples’ children are interesting.
If only someone had warned us that these things might be a consequence of Brexit.
Though, of course, Hunt wimps out of saying what he really thinks Britain should do for the same cynical political reasons as Starmer.
We could also point to the broader strategic position Britain finds itself in. I could argue that aligning ourselves more closely with our European friends and allies is almost self-evidently the best way to protect Britain’s place in the world, stand up to Russia & China, and hedge against the continued possibility that the United States may quickly become an unreliable ally. But this would require us to imagine a fantasy reality where Britain is capable of doing the distinctly un-British thing of planning ahead.
I don’t really like calling things I’ve written “essays” as it sounds either too pretentious or something you should be grading me on.
I cannot describe how much it pains to suggest the details of something do not matter, but in this case it is broadly true.
Even if the current talks between James Cleverly and Maroš Šefčovič yield some sort of positive result or a piece of paper that both parties can sign, they are unlikely to substantially improve upon the status quo, because Cleverly is boxed in by the Tories’ domestic situation and not wanting to torch his own political career.
This paragraph is just mostly uninformed bloviating but go with it.
“The Captain Tom Memorial European Trade Deal”.
This latter point would be a genuinely slightly annoying concession for the EU to make. It currently has ~210 separate treaties with Switzerland, and for years has been trying to nudge the Swiss into a more formalised arrangement. But I think they’d do it for Britain – as the prize of bringing us back inside the tent, with our tail between our legs, would be worth it.
I’m aware of the irony of me writing this post, but you won’t know not to talk about Fight Club unless someone talks about Fight Club in order to tell you not to talk about Fight Club.
It’s almost as embarrassing as when Rishi, a literal international jet-setting finance guy and cosmopolitan billionaire tries to play the role of anti-woke culture warrior to pander to his party.
Finding a non-mad Leaver might be tricky but surely there is someone of sufficient status. Gove seems like a pragmatist, as evidenced by his record as a minister, but he’s also been writing Brexity columns for the past 30 years, so who knows how ideologically pure he is?
Only joking. We all know the second he loses he’ll be off to sit on the board of Blackrock or one of those other big financial firms that you know are important, but can’t really explain what they do.
In the linked piece, I argue that a Citizens’ Assembly wouldn’t work for climate change. And I don’t think that contradicts the point about creating a ‘new’ instition-of-sorts for the decision here. Because this isn’t about trying to create a new thing as a cheat-code to force through something MPs don’t want to do. This is about creating something MPs can cite when going public with what they’ve secretly been wanting to do all along.
Suggested, safer alternative topics for pre-election Starmer than Brexit: Israel/Palestine and Gender Self-ID.
Someone smarter than me should work out what GDP growth figures would have to hit in order for us to give £350m extra every week to the NHS.
I mean, supposedly by Lenin. This quote is attributed to him but it wouldn’t surprise me if it wasn’t nonsense.
Labour MPs should hammer this message home with the same ferocity that the 2015 Tories did with “Long Term Economic Plan”.
Don’t forget in 2015 just before the referendum, Europe faced a significant migrant crisis and a huge in-flow of refugees from both Syria and Libya, which no doubt contributed to the hostile background noise of the referendum.
Leaving aside the fact that it also seems pretty unfair to me that most of us live in a broadly functioning industrialised democracy by accident of birth, and refugees who want to live here almost by definition do not.
If a Labour government tried these sorts of tactics, I will be there with you at the protest.
Hell, maybe if Labour restores the 0.7% of GDP aid funding target that the Tories did away with, it might help a tiny bit in stopping the sorts of problems abroad that create refugees in the first place.
And hey, if Starmer can perform the miracle of reform of the planning system, maybe if we build some more houses too, people won’t feel as though they are competing with immigrants.
Perhaps the more important indicator than stated political preferences is that basically the entire public sector is falling apart and the economy isn’t growing. That’s a very different set of circumstances to June 2016, and people will be feeling the consequences, which may also shift preferences in a “get back to how things used to be” direction.