Labour Backbenchers Are Divided On Whether Keir Starmer Should "Stay Silent" Or Speak Up On Brexit
Labour MPs are split over how Keir Starmer should approach the latest Brexit clash, with some in leave seats willing him to “stay silent”, despite the remarkable scenes in parliament this week.
These backbenchers have told Politics Home they fear anything the Labour leader proposes risks damaging the party’s reputation as it attempts to rebuild after a crushing general election defeat.
However, others think now is the time to be more combative after the government’s admission that it intends on breaching international law and may walk away from trade talks without a deal secured.
One member of the former Labour Leave group said: “A period of silence is welcome.”
In a day of high drama in Parliament, minister Brandon Lewis admitted the government intended to break international law by unilaterally changing aspects of the withdrawal agreement with the EU, drawing criticism from senior Tories including the former Prime Minister Theresa May.
Starmer has been criticised on social media for keeping quiet on Brexit after the government ratcheted up its threat to walk away without an agreement.
However he broke his silence today in an interview with Channel 5 News, saying that ministers should not reopen old wounds and persevere to try and strike a deal.
“What I would say to the government is don’t reopen old wounds, get a deal, move on and concentrate on defeating this virus,” he said.
Attempts to override elements of the withdrawal agreement is wrong, Starmer added, and it is “plain for everybody to see that.”
Graham Stringer, MP for Blackley and Broughton who was part of the Labour Leave group in the 2016 referendum, said: “The Labour party made such a mess of the whole debate for three and a half years about the EU, I don’t think we can afford to be seen to be trying to sabotage the government’s negotiating tactics now.
“Having made such a mess, a period of silence is welcome.”
Following the significant general election defeat for the party in 2019, Stringer said there are still die-hard remainers in the parliamentary party.
He said anyone asking for a second referendum or for an extension to transition has been quieter but that “tendency is still here”.
A senior Labour MP said: “Starmer’s got to be cautious and cool over this because clearly it’s game playing within the Conservative party. He should not get involved until it’s clear what is actually going on.
“We need to be absolutely clear what the reality is before he intervenes.”
Another MP who supported remain said: “I don’t detect too much unrest from [the party] to Keir’s approach. The fact the prime minister is willing to force a no deal with the risks that brings seems mad. But the key point is, it may be a negotiating tactic, in which case it’s too early to be definitive.
“The reality check [for us] must be how little power we have as opposition to change government policy.”
Labour’s Brexit policy, spearheaded by Starmer, was criticised as confusing during the general election and widely believed to be part of the reason the party lost so many seats, particularly in former “red-wall” areas.
However, some Labour MPs think after a long period of not confronting Johnson over Brexit – in part due to the Covid crisis - Starmer now needs to “step up” and make sure people know where the party stands, even if it risks him being criticised for his past remain position.
One MP in a leave voting seat in the north of England said: “Boris Johnson I’m sure will just throw all the insults at Keir but I think he is on firmer ground when he has Conservatives like Bob Neill and Theresa May think the same.
“The Labour party will now really have to speak up on this possible breach of international law.”
The reluctance to battle the Tories on Brexit was justified post-election, they said, and any MPs who still speak of trying to extend transition are told firmly not to raise it by colleagues.
They said: “A lot of MPs in red wall seats are really conscious about the election result still and can understand why Keir has kept quiet, however I think the way things are going with the legislation now, blows a hole in it all.”