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Michael McDowell: British Labour leader Keir Starmer is right to play the long game

His strategy exerts pressure on Johnson to choose between being reasonable with the EU, or staying on side with Tory Brexiteers

British Labour Party leader Keir Starmer recently made a speech in which he went out of his way to make clear that his party does not intend to undo Brexit or bring the UK back into the single market or restore freedom of movement. This speech is significant for several reasons.

Labour strategists want to create a context in which they can go on the attack against the Johnson government in relation to the huge difficulties that the UK is experiencing post-Brexit. A slump in the dollar value of sterling coupled with very sluggish economic growth, labour shortages, falling real values for wage packets, slowing exports to the EU, slowing inward investment and rising inflation — all signal a perfect political storm for the Tories.

Add in Johnson’s credibility and likeability meltdown and you have a growing Tory nightmare. To guard Labour’s flank against charges of being “remainers in everything but name” and to recapture the working-class Brexiteer vote, Starmer is clearing the political decks for action. Capitalising on the consequences of Brexit without challenging the result of the Brexit referendum needs deft political footwork.

Starmer has to weather the blizzard of Tory media criticism that he is boring. Never mind that the erratic, dishonest and clownish Boris might have taught English voters the simple lesson that dullness is not the worst of vices. After all, boring Clement Attlee saw off Boris’s hero, Churchill, in no uncertain terms.


The Tories are floundering like the economy. Some of them want income and social insurance tax cuts. But how can that option be compatible with big welfare increases to compensate for inflation and huge new expenditures on energy subsidies and grants, large increases in defence spending, and all the other palliative proposals under consideration? Tory backbenchers feel like galley slaves chained to their benches while the rotting hulk under Johnson’s command barely keeps its gunwales above water. Mutiny is in the air.

Starmer’s line on the Northern Ireland protocol is intelligent. He promises to negotiate away the more intrusive effects of the agreement on intra-UK trade. He distances Labour from confrontation with the EU. He can easily do so as Labour doesn’t need unionist support and (with, perhaps, the exception of the Corbynista peeress Kate Hoey) it doesn’t have a unionist parliamentary rump that needs minding like the Tories’ European Research Group (ERG).

In recent weeks, we have witnessed the damaging exposure of the fact that Rishi Sunak’s wife was a taxation non-dom, a revelation that is generally believed to have seriously compromised any Sunak challenge for the Tory leadership. Her non-dom status was privately known to the cabinet secretariat but conveniently emerged in time to head off a real leadership threat supported by many MPs.

When Prince Charles was quoted as describing Boris’s immigration flagship policy of exiling migrants to Rwanda as “appalling”, he suddenly suffered a left hook with the revelation that he had been personally receiving million-pound charitable donations in large holdalls from a former Qatari minister.

Assuming that neither the prince nor the Qataris decided to publicise that damaging information, the question of where it came from comes to mind. Was it known to the intelligence services? Was it confidentially reported (as potentially embarrassing intelligence) to anyone in Downing Street? Who knows? But as Boris, the classicist, might ask, “Cui bono?”

Dirty game?

Does Boris play a dirty game of political retaliation? We do know that he was once recorded discussing with a friend and convicted jewellery fraudster, Darius Guppy, also educated at Eton and a fellow member of the Oxford Bullingdon Club, a proposal to beat up an investigative reporter.

Could it also be that Johnson harbours an aversion to seeing Northern Ireland prosper as part of the EU single market similar to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aversion to seeing Ukraine as a free and economically successful partner of the EU? Would comparative success for the North’s economic connection with the EU undermine the absurd swashbuckling, buccaneering vision of post-Brexit prosperity that Johnson and the ERG mis-sold to the people of England?

Does pandering to the ERG Tories really require Boris to pander to the rudderless DUP? An agreed, negotiated implementation of the NI protocol could be achieved with a modicum of bona fide engagement and goodwill on the part of Downing Street. But sadly, it seems that maintenance of a protocol-based casus belli with the EU is a conscious part of Johnson’s personal survival strategy in the Commons.

That is why Starmer’s new approach is important. It puts pressure on an economically challenged Boris to choose between being responsible and reasonable with the UK’s largest trading partner, the EU, or staying on side with the ERG.

A few more scandals, a Lords’ defeat for the protocol-busting Bill, and bad election results or opinion polls just may bring some honesty and honour back to Britain’s dealings with her neighbours.