Andrew Grice / May 2021
Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the UK Labour Party. Photo: Shutterstock
Brexit is alive and kicking as a domestic political issue in the UK. That is good news for Boris Johnson, and bad news for the opposition Labour Party.
Conservative gains and Labour losses in this month’s local authority elections in England showed Johnson’s party is still reaping a dividend for “getting Brexit done.” It wasn’t the only factor, but even Labour officials admit it played a part. In seats last fought in 2016, there was a 1 per cent swing from Labour to the Tories in areas voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, while in Leave-voting places the swing was up to 11 per cent. Small gains for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens among Remain voters in the South of England did not spoil good results for Johnson overall. The Tories also won a highly symbolic parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, held by Labour for 62 years. Of the 55 seats the Tories have captured from Labour since 2019, 51 voted Leave three years earlier.
The results suggest the Labour leader Keir Starmer’s “don’t mention the [Brexit] war” strategy since the transitional period ended in January isn’t working. Tory strategists are convinced Europe remains Starmer’s Achilles heel because he was the architect of Labour’s 2019 election policy backing a second referendum. There is growing pressure from the overwhelmingly pro-European Labour membership for Starmer to end his virtual silence on Brexit and start exposing the flaws in Johnson’s thin Trade and Co-operation Agreement. Since her promotion to Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves has shown a willingness to do so. Eventually, Starmer will probably square the circle by demanding changes to Johnson’s deal to help business, in the hope of enhancing Labour's credibility in the business world as well as placating frustrated pro-Europeans. But Starmer will stick to his statement that a Labour government would not try to renegotiate the UK-EU agreement. He will resist Labour grassroots demands to pledge to rejoin the Customs Union, which would play into Johnson’s hands, allowing him to make Brexit a big issue at the next general election -- due in 2024, but increasingly likely to be held in 2023.
Some Labour figures believe the party’s support is now so strong in Remainer land in the cities, university towns, and among graduates, social liberals and younger adults, that it should try to base a new election-winning coalition on them. One option would be a progressive alliance with the Lib Dems and Greens to unite the fragmented Remain vote in the way Johnson has hoovered up UKIP/Brexit Party supporters. The problem is that, under the UK’s first-past-the-post-system, Labour would risk piling up even bigger majorities in the seats it already holds. It is hard to see a route back to power for Labour without it regaining the support of Leave voters in the “red wall” in the North and Midlands who have switched to the Tories. So Starmer’s interventions on Brexit are going to be limited. If he won power, he might have a more pro-EU story to tell. But he fears that talking up the Europe issue would make it even harder to climb his electoral mountain.
While Johnson holds the Brexit cards for now, he cannot rest on his laurels. He knows voters do not say “thank you” forever; he must show that Brexit is not only done but paying dividends. Ministers have been ordered to trumpet the benefits of the UK’s new freedoms. However, they are discovering it is not a one-way street. A “zero tariffs, zero quotas” trade deal with Australia, the first agreement since Brexit, ran into strong opposition from UK farmers who fear they will be undercut, and provoked a split in Johnson’s Cabinet.
Meanwhile, the arm-wrestling between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol has seen David Frost, now Johnson’s Brexit Minister, reprise his tough tactics during the Brexit negotiations. To the EU’s dismay, the Prime Minister is trying to show the Irish Sea trade border he signed up to is unworkable. But Johnson believes that playing hardball with Brussels still plays well for him domestically, not least in the “red wall.” This means UK-EU relations are likely to remain bumpy for some time yet.