Brexit: Sir Keir Starmer tries recasting himself as the ‘competent Leaver’ – as the government faces turmoil
The Labour leader says it is in the “national interest” to get a Brexit deal and “move on”.
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On the day the government openly admitted it was going to break international law by overwriting parts of the EU divorce deal, you might have expected the Labour leader to join the political attacks on the prime minister.
The civil service’s top lawyer Jonathan James had quit in protest over the decision.
But in a round of broadcast interviews on Tuesday, opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer – a lawyer himself who, in fact, personally knows Mr James – did no such thing.
Boris Johnson's Brexit plan 'does break international law' as top legal adviser quits
Instead he focused his Brexit intervention on the message he wanted to land: the Brexit issue had been settled and the divide between Leave and Remain was over.
He was no longer – to borrow from Boris Johnson – the “Islingtonian Remainer” but a politician who, to borrow from Mr Johnson again, wanted to “Get Brexit Done”.
“We have left the EU, and therefore the arguments about Leave and Remain that tore us apart for years are over,” he told Sky News.
“I’m very clear therefore what’s now in the national interest is getting a deal. We need to get a deal and we need to move on.”
He also would not open the door – not even a sliver – on the question of trying to rejoin the EU in the future.
When I asked him if this matter had been settled for a generation, he told me: “I don’t think there’s a case for reopening the issue of EU membership of the EU. We have left. We need a deal.”
Clear blue water between Labour and the Liberal Democrats once more, but here is a politician trying to close the Brexit gap between himself and Mr Johnson.
“This was our Brexit detox,” was how one senior Labour figure put it. “We are now the party of getting on with Brexit and saying the only people frustrating now are the Conservatives.”
Sir Keir is attempting to rehabilitate the Labour Party with swathes of former Labour-voting Brexiteers, while also trying to lay the blame for a failure to secure a trade deal not at the feet of the EU but at the feet of the prime minister.
Getting a deal is “not difficult”, is “what the public want” and “what they were promised”. Failure then becomes, again, a question of Mr Johnson’s competence.
As the government prepares to publish its Internal Market Bill which will override part of the Withdrawal Agreement and parliament prepares to debate it, there is surely a case where Mr Johnson and his team will try to re-cast Labour and Sir Keir as the ones, again, trying to frustrate Brexit.
But the Labour team think this is clear cut.
The party will not support breaking international law but it will equally not be drawn into the fight over the Withdrawal Agreement, instead focusing on the bigger issue for voters – the trade deal.
The Labour leader has thrown his party onto the “we’re all leavers now” bandwagon.
His challenge in the coming weeks is to recast himself, once an ardent Remainer, as “the competent” Leaver against a prime minister that could be taking the country to a no trade deal exit on 31 December.