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Keir Starmer Is Walking A "Tightrope" By Fighting The Tories On Brexit

Labour leader Keir Starmer in The Hague, Netherlands (Alamy)

5 min read

Keir Starmer's decision to be vocal about issues caused by Brexit will provide an early indication of whether the Labour Party is ready for the pressure of a general election campaign, according to pollsters.

Questions over the UK's ongoing relationship with the European Union proved a major Achilles heel for Starmer when he first became Labour leader in 2020, and he was often accused of avoiding the issue altogether. Starmer's initial support for the cross-party campaign for a second Brexit referendum was also an easy target for Conservative attacks in the wake of Boris Johnson's popular 2019 general election pledge to "get Brexit done".

But this week the Labour leader, who opinion polls suggest is likely to win the next general election, is seemingly more bullish. In an interview with the Financial Times during a meeting of centre-left political leaders in Canada, Starmer said he would attempt to secure a "much better" relationship with the EU than the deal negotiated by Johnson. "I do think we can have a closer trading relationship as well," he said. "That’s subject to further discussion.”

According to Luke Tryl, UK Director at polling company More in Common, while evidence shows that the British public is open to talking about how the UK relationship with the EU can be improved, the Labour leader faces a "tightrope" walk between addressing post-Brexit ties issues and making himself vulnerable to Tory claims that he wants to reopen the 2016 referendum debate.

Scarlett Maguire, Director at polling firm JL Partners Polls, agreed that Starmer's apparent increased willingness to discuss Brexit will be an "interesting test case" in how Labour will perform in a policy area which not so long ago was seen as a major weakness for the party.

But one Labour source dismissed that this was shaky territory for Starmer, and said that the substance of his remarks in Montreal was no different to what he had said in a July 2022 speech at the Centre for European Reform in which he vowed to "make Brexit work". They told PoliticsHome that his plans are simply attracting more attention now because he is being taken more seriously as the next Prime Minister. 

But while Starmer's comments do echo his previously stated desire to "make Brexit work", his decision to explicitly mention rewriting the Brexit deal while touring the world stage, including a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, does suggest a greater confidence around the issue. 

The Labour source said that improving Johnson's Brexit deal was a "row" that Labour is "comfortable" having with the Tories.

It also comes as part of a wider Labour effort to spell out what the party would do if elected to government, rather than simply lambasting apparent Tory government failures. Earlier this month, the Shadow Cabinet was told a major challenge they face is convincing highly pessimistic voters that Labour is able to fix the problems facing the country. 

One member of the Shadow Cabinet said Starmer vowing to improve UK ties with the EU "is Keir doing what he sees needs doing".

Tryl told PoliticsHome that the challenge facing Starmer and Labour is talking about how the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU can be improved without being seen by the public as wanting to revisit the acrimony of the years following the 2016 referendum. 

“What the public desperately doesn’t want is a return to the Brexit rows," he said.

"It was interesting to see that Conservative party chairman Greg Hands talked about Keir Starmer taking us back to square one, which is really not what the public wants.

“But that said, people in focus groups in polls tell you that Brexit isn’t working… There’s definitely space for saying we want to make it work better.”

Maguire said that the salience of Brexit as an issue had fallen significantly in recent years and that when asked about the subject, most voters want to see closer trade links with Brussels.

“What we have seen in our polling is a majority of Britains, including a majority of Leavers, want closer ties with the EU when it comes to trade," she explained. 

"There is clear support amongst nearly all demographics for closer ties here than what we have at the moment. Labour, looking at that, will probably think this is a safe thing to play on.

“I do think it’s a conversation the British public is ready to have."

Both agreed, however, that there was a risk to Starmer in his policy of closer trade ties with the EU being conflated with a perceived position of wanting higher levels of immigration.

"Immigration is more of a livewire issue," Maguire said.

The Labour leader faced a potential taste of what's to come in the next general election campaign last week when Tory ministers accused him of being prepared to allow more asylum seekers to come to the UK as part of a small boats returns deal with Brussels.

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