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‘Brexit has been a disaster and they don’t want to talk about it’: Labour Party face awkward questions on the campaign trail

Rachel Reeves, who is on course to become the first female chancellor of the exchequer, is eyeing economic growth and an improved trade deal with the EU

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves during a visit to Ocean Gate, Eastern Docks, Southampton, on the general election campaign trail. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It is high noon on Monday and a bunch of workers, corralled by their managers, stand around a dockyard in suspiciously clean overalls awaiting the arrival of two politicians. In an act of supreme political trolling, Labour leader Keir Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, are due in Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak’s hometown of Southampton to promote their economic plans.

The deep blast of a horn punctures the scene. It is not the arrival of the VIPs, but rather the noise of a huge container ship sliding out of the port. A thicket of television cameras swing around to capture the moment. The ship is called the Patriot. Starmer’s spindoctors nearby almost swoon with delight.

A pair of sleek Range Rovers sweep into the dockyard. Starmer and Reeves, the political double-act who are odds-on to be in charge of the UK economy following the July 4th election, step out of one of the vehicles and stride towards the workers for a stage-managed question-and-answer session.

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The staff, in their brand new orange overalls, lob softball queries at the duo about the UK economy, such as how to secure green investment and “how to be an economic superpower again”. Then an unmistakably Dublin accent echoes from the speakers hooked up to the Q&A microphones: “Have you any plans to improve the relationship with the European Union?”


The Irish man has asked Starmer about the topic nobody in Britain seems to want to discuss in this election campaign: the dreaded B-word. No longer swooning, the spindoctors shift from foot to foot. Starmer is being dragged on to ground he has studiously avoided for fear of upsetting pro-Brexit voters in the northern parts of England who he is trying to woo back to Labour.

The Dubliner, who has a penchant for awkward questions, decries to Starmer, who polls say will be the next UK prime minister, the hassle that Brexit has caused for businesses in international trade. He speaks of the bureaucracy, the delays, the difficulties importing simple items.

“The amount of paperwork is causing a lot of grief for a lot of businesses,” he warns.

Starmer replies that the UK’s Brexit trade talks with the EU were “botched” and he promises a better deal for Britain. He does not explain how he plans to achieve this. The Q&A ends and he and Reeves walk off towards the cameras. The managers begin corralling the dockers again, this time back to work.

The Irish man is only delighted to meet a compatriot. He is Alan Doyle, originally from the South Circular Road in Dublin but living in the UK for 35 years. He says he used to own a business importing on-street “electrical enclosures” – in the Republic they’re colloquially known as ESB boxes.

“I employed four people. We were doing well. And then the business got destroyed by Brexit,” he says. His once-thriving little company went bust over an £84,000 (€99,500) debt. Doyle says he lost his income, his pension and his faith in the future of the British economy. Now he works part-time at the port.

“Brexit has been a disaster and they don’t want to talk about it,” he says.

Awkward interlocutor Alan Doyle, originally from Dublin

Meanwhile, Starmer is busy with the broadcasters, while Reeves hangs about. The Irish Times approaches her to ask what sort of a “better deal” with the EU a Labour government would hope to achieve. More pertinently, what would it be prepared to offer in return?

Whatever about the EU’s negotiating stance, Reeves says the UK’s “red lines” remain – no return to the single market, customs union, or the free movement of workers. Yet she would like to get from the EU a veterinary agreement and a deal for the “mutual recognition of each other’s professional qualifications”, which would benefit workers in the City of London’s financial district.

“Obviously we know negotiations require give and take,” she says. “[But] I don’t think the deal [in operation currently] is working as well as it could, either for Britain or for others, for EU countries.”

How to get a better trade deal from the EU may be one of the biggest quandaries facing Reeves when she walks into 11 Downing Street as chancellor of the exchequer in two weeks’ time. Without one, it may be impossible to generate the economic growth essential to meet her tight fiscal plans.

Sunak has helped to steady Britain’s economy. Once-galloping UK inflation is now back at the 2 per cent target level, while last year’s sense of acute economic crisis has faded.

Still, growth is almost nonexistent. Britain barely slipped out of a technical recession in the first quarter of the year and then the economy flatlined again in April. UK investment levels are bottom of the G7 group of rich nations. The economy is seen as lacking verve and a plan to get it pumping.

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Reeves has helped Starmer bring Labour back to the verge of power by restoring the party’s credibility on economic affairs after the reputational damage it shipped during the reign of Jeremy Corbyn. She has pledged not to hike most taxes and has eschewed any unfunded spending plans.

This month, 120 business leaders wrote to the Times newspaper endorsing her plans, which also comprise promises to boost state investment through a £7.3 billion national wealth fund that she says will create 650,000 jobs, and a state-owned Great British Energy company.

She says a new Labour government would also unclog Britain’s planning system to let the economy literally build its way back to growth – Britain’s infrastructure is crumbling. She has also convened her own shadow British Infrastructure Council of influential financial figures to advise her, and has promised to convene a global investment summit for Britain within her first 100 days in office.

Her plans have since won further approval from more business luminaries.

This week Reeves’s plans were endorsed by billionaire Phones4U founder John Cauldwell, who had donated £500,000 to the Conservative Party in recent years. Now, he says, the chaos the party has wrought on the economy has driven him to the point of “despair”.

“I can declare publicly that I will vote for Labour, and I encourage everybody to do the same,” he said.

People just want to get through to a sense of some stability. The policies can emerge later

—  A senior UK banking figure on Rachel Reeves

Jim Ratcliffe, the owner of chemicals group Ineos, which also co-owns Manchester United, told Bloomberg this week that people have “had enough” of the Tories. He said the party he once supported needs to be removed from government for the sake of the economy.

“The mood now in the UK is ready for change,” he said.

On Wednesday evening, a coterie of top economists including Nobel Prize winners Joe Stiglitz, Christopher Pissarides and Angus Deaton wrote a letter to the Guardian newspaper endorsing Reeves’s fiscal and economic plans. They warned that the upheaval caused by repeated Tory leadership changes had created “huge investment-sapping uncertainty”.

“Contrary to what the government has been saying, we believe that Labour provides a credible economic alternative,” the economists wrote.

Assuming all the polls are correct and Labour romps home in the election, Reeves is on course to next month become the first woman ever appointed as the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer. It will mark an extraordinary ascent for the south London daughter of teachers.

Reeves, who is from a political family (her sister Ellie Reeves is also a Labour MP), was educated at Oxford and the London School of Economics. After a stint working for the banking group HBOS, she went to work for the Bank of England as an economist.

Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, would later add his name to the chorus of endorsements of Reeves. At last year’s Labour conference in Liverpool, he stunned the main hall with a video message backing her during her address. Reeves, he said, was a “serious economist”.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves is a 'serious economist', according to Mark Carney's endorsement. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Starmer had turned to her to be his shadow chancellor in the wake of Labour’s disastrous defeat by Boris Johnson’s Tory party in a byelection in Hartlepool in 2021. Since then, she has relentlessly set about wooing City figures and touting Labour as the “party of business”.

Her ruthlessness was evident in February when Labour ditched a centrepiece economic policy: a £28 billion green investment plan that she said could no longer be funded due to the damage to the economy caused during Liz Truss’s brief but tumultuous reign as prime minister.

Four months later at a Labour campaign event in Westminster, a noticeably assured Reeves took to the podium to denounce the spending plans contained in the Tory election manifesto. She also alluded to the previous decision to bin Labour’s green investment plan.

“If there is one thing that people know about me from the time I’ve been shadow chancellor, it is that I’m absolutely committed to saving money and to ensuring that the numbers always add up.”

Reeves has promised not to raise income taxes, national insurance or VAT. This has led to suggestions that, if the economic growth she seeks doesn’t emerge, she may be tempted to hike the UK’s rate of capital gains tax.

She has also promised to end tax breaks for private equity fund managers that allow them to pay a lower rate of CGT on part of their profits. Yet despite this, City of London sources, speaking to The Irish Times this week, insist it isn’t so much the fine detail of her plans that continues to win her support, but the sense that she could restore long-term credibility to UK fiscal management.

“People just want to get through to a sense of some stability. The policies can emerge later,” says one senior banking figure.

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Back in Southampton this week, some of the other dockers begin asking journalists about the bob-haired woman standing beside Starmer.

“Is she the one who sold the house?” one asks, apparently mixing Reeves up with Angela Rayner, Labour’s ebullient deputy leader who recently emerged unscathed from an investigation into her property tax affairs.

“I’d never heard of Rachel Reeves until this morning,” they say.

They will hear a lot more of her from now on.

Before she and Starmer start speaking, another dock worker, Southampton man Jeff Carthy, whose ancestors came from Kilkenny, says he could never vote for Labour and that the party’s leadership is incompetent.

A few minutes into the Labour duo’s spiel to workers, he sidles over to whisper that he has changed his mind as they are “talking sense – this is much better than what you hear said on television”.

The time for persuading is almost over and the time for delivery will soon begin. The countdown is on to a new Labour-led dawn for Britain and its stuttering economy.