Can Any Politician Have a ‘Good’ Brexit? Yes
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When Brexit is said and done, legion will be the politicians whose careers and ambitions are shattered along the way. Most will fall into two categories: Those who campaigned for an outcome they weren't prepared for and couldn't control, and those who put party politics above national interests.
If he survives the coming year, Labour's Keir Starmer may just be that rare politician to have a good Brexit. That won't be much comfort to him, though. As he tells friends, even if it has made him the most talked-about opposition politician after party leader Jeremy Corbyn, it was never his dream job.
That isn't to say Starmer lacks ambition. The opposite was clear almost from the moment he abandoned a career as a barrister and human rights advocate and declared himself a candidate for parliament.
Tulip Siddiq, the Labour lawmaker from his neighboring constituency, recalls meeting Starmer for the first time, when he sought her advice on running for office and, effectively, her blessing. He impressed her with his defense of Labour values, but also his determination to keep his promise to his wife to be around more for their young kids than he was in his previous job as Britain's chief public prosecutor. “I found him to be quite a feminist,” she notes.
The next time they sat down, Starmer took notes as Siddiq, a party activist since she was 16, told him how to get through the crucial party selection phase of becoming a member of parliament. She told him, for example, not to take the large, Labour-voting Bangladeshi community for granted (she grew up in London, but hails from Bangladeshi political royalty herself). He went to Bangladeshi events and spoke to the Bengali media; he even went to the country. He was elected in 2015.
“It was very clear from the start that Keir was very ambitious. When you spoke to him you got the impression that this man was not going to stay a backbencher.”
He didn't. While Siddiq, who hails from a heavily remain-voting constituency, resigned her front-bench position in January 2017 in opposition to Labour's decision to trigger Article 50, starting the Brexit countdown clock, Starmer was tapped to drive a policy he didn't really agree with.
In appointing him shadow Brexit secretary, one commentator noted, the Labour leader brought “a bazooka to a water pistol fight.” Starmer's impact was immediate.
He argued for the government to release its Brexit plan; it did. He set six tests any Brexit deal would need to pass – criteria the government would never be able to match – thus giving the opposition space to reject whatever emerged from the negotiations and brand it a failure.
He was instrumental in getting the government's legal advice published; and he backed Conservative MP Dominic Grieve's amendment to ensure that parliament will get a say in determining what comes next if May's deal is rejected.
He scored parliamentary victories for the Labour Party – but he has also occasionally found himself at odds with Corbyn, who is no fan of the EU and didn't bother to campaign much for remaining in it.
In September, Corbyn and his allies sought to abandon a plan to keep Britain in the EU's customs union, which would have left the thorny problem of the Irish border unsolved. As a former human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, Starmer is keenly aware of the importance of upholding the Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland. He pushed back.
At the Labour Party conference in Liverpool, Starmer presided over six hours of debate as Labour representatives hammered out a position on a second referendum, despite Corbyn's opposition to it. Ultimately, it was decided that Labour would first seek a general election and, failing that, support a second referendum.
It was a fudge. Starmer, though, added a personal touch to that policy. In his convention speech he inserted a line that said a “remain” option would be on the ballot if it came to a referendum. The convention floor erupted in wild applause. Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell looked less than pleased.
“It is, in my mind, clear beyond any doubt that Labour's interest in this process is almost exclusively a party political interest,” says Jolyon Maugham, the barrister whose case before the European Court of Justice led to a ruling that Britain could unilaterally revoke Article 50, thereby canceling Brexit. “I think that's difficult for Keir. And I think you see that emerging at times.”
The internal conflict was clear. In the autumn of 2017 I heard Starmer say with clear conviction that Brexit was beyond party politics. “Show me this mythical bad deal that is worse than no deal,” he challenged, when the government claimed no deal would better than a bad deal. But when Theresa May returned with the product of her negotiations, suddenly, here was a deal that was not acceptable – and yet no deal at all was also abhorrent. What to do?
If a second referendum is mooted by the government – something May has strongly resisted – then Labour will have a say in the question that is put to the people. So far, the party is united in opposing a no-deal option. “I suspect that Starmer would resign rather than allow the Labour Party to enable ‘no deal.’” says Maugham. “It would be hugely disruptive for the Labour Party to lose him. This is his trump card – that he represents the views of the overwhelming majority.”
Those who know Starmer and have watched him both as a lawyer and as a politician say two things stand out: His deep attachment to his values and his pragmatism. Both are about to be tested.
If Starmer would make a good future leader, the emphasis here is on "future." He doesn't seem one for backroom plotting. The bloody guerrilla warfare the world has watched on the Conservative benches would be deeply distasteful for him.
Nor would he be allowed to do much scheming. The Labour leadership is tightly held and fiercely defended. It is ideological, and sees Brexit mainly as an opportunity for unseating the hapless Conservative party. Corbyn is famous for clearing the Labour stables of any serious pretenders to the throne or mischief-makers. If he has kept Starmer close, it is because he needs him and respects his legal mind, but doesn't fear him.
He's my politician to watch in 2019, not just for his potential impact on Brexit but also for the influence he will have on the Labour Party at such a critical juncture in British politics.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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