I was becoming seriously weary of those Labour leaders who, having campaigned to Remain in last year’s EU referendum, subsequently seemed to take a positive delight in arguing for a warts and all Brexit. What I hadn’t counted on was that their position on Europe is like a rudderless ship caught in cross currents and buffeted by winds that change direction every five minutes.
Whatever their actual views, it makes for an unedifying spectacle. The shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner, a Scot who now sits as the MP for Brent North, stands out only for the brazenness of his example. Sixty per cent of his constituents voted Remain, as did 62 per cent of his fellow Scots. The Labour Party ran on a Remain ticket. So did Gardiner. A year on, if we are to believe the latest poll by the Economic and Social Research Council, 66 per cent of Labour Party members want Britain to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union. Less than five per cent are opposed.
But none of that matters to Gardiner. Or not yet at any rate. As things stand you could hardly put a cigarette paper between his “Opposition” stance on Brexit and that of the Tories’ Liam Fox.
“Brexit,” he told Guardian readers on Tuesday, “arose from key political, rather than trade, objectives: to have control over our borders, to have sovereignty over our laws, not to submit to the European court of justice (ECJ), and not to pay money into the European budget.”
It was as though he was Kate Hoey, or, alternatively, as if he had just discovered how cruelly deceived he had been during his years of loyal support for British membership.
“I campaigned to stay in the EU,” he went on. “But as a democratic politician I have to recognise that these objectives provide the benchmarks by which leave voters will judge the future trade relations we negotiate with the EU. Unless the new agreement delivers these objectives in substantial measure, we will find it difficult to justify the final result to the 52 per cent who voted leave.”
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No mention of the 48 per cent, or of the fact that 27 per cent of the electorate was so unenthused by the debate one way or the other that they didn’t bother to vote. Or of his own party’s clearly stated stance on the matter. He had no interest in compromise. His sole duty, once the people had spoken, was to appease those who disagreed with him.
On that basis, anything becomes possible and pragmatism is all. “I campaigned against the reintroduction of capital punishment. But as a democratic politician, responsive to the public mood, I have to recognise the efficacy of bringing back the rope, and indeed the cat o’nine tails, without which tyranny would rule.”
Gardiner could have said: “Brexit is inevitable. We couldn’t stop it. But I promise you I will do my best to ensure that we get the best deal possible” He could have, but he didn’t. What he actually said was that he now wants us out of the Single Market and the Customs Union, lock, stock and two barrels of Prosecco. Otherwise, he says, Britain will be reduced to a “vassal state”.
Liberated by Brexit, he feels able to express views that he previously kept secret or else acquired on June 24 on the basis that they were now Realpolitik. Either way, he comes across as a sadly diminished figure, for whom principles are here today and gone tomorrow.
But he is not alone. I won’t waste time on Corbyn, who, on Europe, was always a Tony Benn wolf in Hilary Benn’s sheepskin. No, it is Keir Starmer and John McDonnell to whom I would next draw your attention.
Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, was a committed Remainer who after the referendum lamented the nation’s decision to leave and vowed to do all he could to ensure that we retained as close as possible a relationship with our erstwhile European partners. So what did he do? He demanded that Parliament should have the final say on the terms of the deal with Europe and, er, that’s it. Today, Starmer is so far up David Davis’s fundamentalist approach to Brexit that it is hard to know where Davis ends and Starmer begins.
But McDonnell is worse. He not only ratted, he appears poised to re-rat. Up until June 23, he was content to be seen as pro-European. Believing that Remain would win, he defended the free movement of labour and accused the Leave camp of pedalling “anti-migrant rubbish”. Migrants were not to blame for the pressure on public services or the fall in the value of wages. The EU, he said, protected workers’ rights and was a bulwark against climate change. The Tories’ “Project Fear” was “overwhelmingly negative” and it was time“to turn this debate around, drive out the politics of despair and offer a vision for Britain in Europe.”
Five months later, echoing the then public mood, he changed his tune. With Remain a dead duck, Brexit had become “an enormous opportunity” for the country and those who sought to prevent or delay its implementation were on the side of “corporate elites”. Except that, this week, with the mood music from Brussels now more like the 1812 Overture, he changed his tune again, announcing that, contrary to the previously stated view of his leader, Labour had yet to make up its mind on the Single Market. “Whether we’re in, whether we’re out, we’re not ruling anything out.”
Not even Boris Johnson pretended that you could sort-of have your cake and sort-of eat it, too. If the Tories are all over the place on Brexit, Labour’s top leadership seems to be in at least two places at the same time. And don’t ask me what the party’s nominal number two, Tom Watson, thinks. He was “disappointed” when a group of Labour MPs voted earlier this month to keep the UK in the single market. “But, you know, we’re still buzzing, we still want to hold the Government to account. We’ll get over it and move on.”
On Wednesday evening, there was another twist. Sir Keir Starmer, speaking at an event in the City of London, contradicted the party’s position (whatever that is). He suggested that the party is not for hard Brexit after all:
“Labour’s objective is tariff-free access to the single market, no new red tape at customs and a deal that works for services as well as goods. It is vital that we retain the benefits of the single market and the customs union. How we achieve that is secondary to the outcome and should be part of the negotiations. We need to be flexible in our approach and not sweep options off the table.”
Too little, too late. Rather than fighting to halt Brexit, or at least to remove its more abrasive features, the Labour leadership is content these days to play it by ear. Their only settled plan is to leave it to the Tories to make a mess of things and then to cash in at the next general election. They are cowards masquerading as democrats. They are also idiots.