Since becoming leader of the Labour party, Keir Starmer’s approach to the politics of Brexit has been a simple one: please everybody, we need to talk about something else.
But the time may soon arrive when the topic can no longer be avoided. Should Boris Johnson secure a Brexit deal in last-minute negotiations with Brussels, there will be votes in parliament - reportedly in the form of a “future relationship bill”. This puts Starmer and his colleagues in an unenviable position: they can’t change what this deal looks like (because they don’t have the votes), but they must come to a judgement about whether a Boris Johnson deal should be endorsed or not.
Voting against the deal has very limited traction within the Labour Party (owing to the 2019 election result, and given that Brexit has happened), so the debate is between voting for the deal, or abstaining and withholding judgement on the terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Both would allow Labour to say it is not opposing Johnson’s deal – but the differences between voting for the deal and an abstention are significant.
Remembering a disastrous election
There are convincing arguments for both approaches. Starmer could opt to vote for a deal and present it as an early act of decisive leadership. This would signal a very obvious change in his position. He would have transformed from someone who had convinced themselves that only another referendum would do, to someone willing to endorse the terms of trade tabled by Johnson. If you want to get on with rebuilding relationships with voters who abandoned you, then big moments such as this provide a golden opportunity.
The downside of this may be the reaction it will provoke in Labour voters who considered themselves “remainers”. Can Labour really, a year after the 2019 election, endorse a deal? The majority of Labour MPs campaigned vigorously to oppose the sort of deal Johnson pitched, either on the basis of achieving a referendum, or for the “soft” Brexit of remaining in the EU’s single market. Starmer himself said, just over a year ago, that Johnson’s Brexit would form part of a “decisive lurch to the right”. He’ll no doubt be asked whether this is still his opinion, should a trade deal be agreed.
Another argument related to voting for the deal is that Labour could, if it forms a government after the next general election, significantly alter the UK’s relationship with the EU. The Johnson deal, then, is less significant. What matters is that there is something to build on in the future. The weakness of this argument is that it ducks the question about whether this particular deal is right or wrong for now. And the logic of it would seem to extend to many things the government could choose to do between now and the next election.
Abstaining would see Labour avoid endorsing the deal, freeing itself to cast major doubt on the deal’s efficacy and the longer-term consequences of Johnson’s Brexit. Over the next three years, Starmer and the Labour frontbench will be commenting on economic and jobs data, or the investment decisions of major businesses. Brexit will be a factor in all of it. With an abstention the party could set out its alternative without being reminded that it voted for it.
Of course, it would be more challenging to frame an abstention as a trust-rebuilding pivot from Starmer – particularly with recent speculation that voting for Johnson’s deal has been actively considered. Indeed, perhaps worse, it would remind voters of the Brexit indecision of 2018-2019. Lucy Powell, a shadow minister, recently argued against an abstention, suggesting that Labour needed to “have a strong position on it, even if that’s difficult” and referred to so-called “red wall” seats that Labour lost.
Avoiding no-deal Brexit
There is one further key argument: that any vote will, in reality, be between “no deal” and Johnson’s trade deal. Whatever the criticisms Labour MPs have over the latter, anything is better than no deal. Therefore, Labour MPs should back it, so the argument goes. In part, this comes down to how the vote is interpreted, and whether the Conservative party mostly unites behind the prime minister’s deal.
If it looks like Johnson’s deal will pass comfortably, the question facing Labour may not appear as “deal or no deal”. Instead, Labour will know it can express its view on the substance of the deal without actively blocking its passage.
This isn’t an easy decision. Endorsing the deal appears to be more politically deliverable for Starmer than perhaps some expected – with previously committed remain MPs choosing to focus on framing Starmer as the leader who can win an election, rather than continuing to talk about Europe.
Yet, in a difficult call, I think abstention just about wins out over voting for the deal. Labour’s path back to power is a long one and no single decision will secure it. Voting for a deal at this stage does not obviate the need to reach decision’s on Labour’s policy in the future - whether that be a return to the single market or other areas of the UK-EU relationship. All of which, no doubt, could be presented as “going back” on a Brexit deal. In short, this debate is not over for Labour - and neither should it be.