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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock (13630298u) In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak observe destroyed Russian military vehicles installed in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine Russia War Britain, Kyiv, Ukraine – 19 Nov 2022
Don’t walk into the Brexit elephant trap, Mr Starmer

Don’t walk into the Brexit elephant trap, Mr Starmer

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock (13630298u) In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak observe destroyed Russian military vehicles installed in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine Russia War Britain, Kyiv, Ukraine – 19 Nov 2022

Last week’s autumn statement was meant to hem in Labour on fiscal policy. Now, Rishi Sunak is trying to tempt the Opposition leader onto lethal ground of a different sort.

On Saturday, the President of Ukraine welcomed Rishi Sunak to his ceremonial palace as the Prime Minister paid his first visit to Kyiv since entering Number Ten. The image of the two heads of government, both still under 45, engaged in talks was striking: on one side of the table, the leader of a country that has been the object of global concern this year, who has been holding a relentless round of meetings with his counterparts to ensure the continued support of the international community… and, on the other, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Just kidding. During his brief trip, Sunak announced a new £50 million air defence package, including technology to help Zelensky’s forces fend off Russia’s Iranian-supplied drones. And, quite rightly, the PM pledged to “back Ukraine for as long as it takes”. This was much the most serious commitment he made in a week of relentless diplomacy abroad and high-stakes politics at home.

All the same: his meeting with the Ukrainian president, for all its moral intensity, must also have been the most gratifyingly straightforward engagement he had faced for days. At the G20 summit in Bali – as at Cop-27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh the week before – the PM engaged in a speed-dating series of bilaterals with his global counterparts, reassuring them with all the persuasive power he could muster that the crazy days are over and that the UK’s economic credibility is no longer in question. On Thursday, so exhausted that he took out his contact lenses and wore his glasses, he sat beside Jeremy Hunt as the Chancellor delivered an Autumn Statement  that, in the words of one minister, was “a bloody big barbed wire sandwich.”

The Rishi-and-Jeremy double act is not hard to decode. After Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng treated the economic future of the nation like a game of catch with an unpinned hand grenade – Tory anarchists who scorned boring bureaucracy like, you known, checking their figures with the Office for Budget Responsibility – their successors are leaning into a performance style that is the diametric opposite of what one senior Whitehall official described to me as “Liz’s Lost Weekend”. In absolute contrast, Sunak and Hunt are meticulous, technocratic and flawlessly reasonable in their rhetoric and public remarks.

Which is not to say that their strategy will work. Are they a pair of management consultants brought in to save UKplc, or Harley Street palliative care specialists helping to make the last days of this elderly Conservative government as comfortable as possible? It is not hard to imagine their sombre discussion with senior Tories weeping quietly in the consulting room: “It could be only a matter of months, but we think that, by keeping the pension triple lock and upgrading benefits in line with inflation that the end will be as painless as possible for the patient.” 

This is certainly how most Conservatives I have spoken to interpret Hunt’s gambit. The big picture remains horrendous: inflation climbing to 11.1 percent, its highest point in 40 years; taxes at a 70-year peak, with the combined effect of fiscal drag and rising prices compounding the impact; living standards falling by seven percent in the next two years, according to the OBR; unemployment rising again; the near-certain prospect of increased council tax bills; higher energy prices from April; social care reform postponed yet against; a wave of strikes on its way. What Saul Bellow would call the “pain schedule” is long, daunting and, other things being equal, terminal for the Tories.

To generalise, what at least a plurality of Sunak’s MPs hope for is an ending that will not be catastrophic, humiliating and likely to flood the market with defeated Conservatives competing for a limited number of reasonably remunerated private sector jobs. They have a measure of confidence that Hunt’s relentless emphasis upon fiscal discipline, “difficult decisions”, and market reassurance might yet, in the words of one minister (and former oarsman), “set the boat and mean that, even if we lose, we don’t actually sink at Hammersmith Bridge”.

This is undoubtedly the logical way to frame the governing party’s prospects between now and the election (which must be held no later than January 2025). As the pollster Sir John Curtice has pointed out, the Tories’ woes are absolutely not confined to the economic pain ahead. Nine days hence, the partygate scandal – a story broken in the Daily Mirror on 30 November 2021 – will celebrate its first anniversary. 

In the past twelve months, even as the cost-of-living crisis has deepened and energy bills soared, the Conservatives have indulged themselves in an unbelievable carnival of introspection, denial and recrimination. Three prime ministers, four chancellors, and two acrimonious leadership races: these appalling data points are not lost on voters worried about food, heating and clothing their children. So it makes eminent sense for the Tories to assume the brace position.

And yet: even the most fatalistic Conservative MPs will, if pressed, concede that they have one remaining, lingering, ineradicable hope. In the words of an otherwise lugubrious Cabinet Minister: “I can’t see how we win. But I can still just about imagine Labour losing.”

As another Downing Street source puts it, more specifically: “Labour is the dog that hasn’t barked. Our real job is to get them to bark – to say something that suddenly makes them look stupid, or at least vulnerable.” 

On Thursday, Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, grasped immediately that Hunt had postdated most of the painful measures until after the election. Ostensibly, he did this for sound economic reasons: immediate cuts will deepen the recession. But the party political gamesmanship scarcely needs to be spelt out.

Thus, Labour faces a fiscal elephant trap a mile wide, and a mile deep. Between now and polling day, the Opposition party cannot say or do anything that opens it to the charge of wrecking the UK’s hard-won economic credibility. 

Every spending commitment it makes must be meticulously accounted for – and not by the vague promise that it will be funded by future “growth”. Every tax rise (and Keir Starmer will have to promise such increases if he is to be more than Rishi-with-a-red-rosette) must be immune to caricature as an attack on aspiration – always Labour’s electoral weakness. In this election the party can afford to target only the fattest of fat cats. 

In private, I am told, Starmer talks of the next Labour government being as bold in its ambitions as Attlee’s, or Blair’s, and as sweeping in its reset of the whole system as FDR’s “New Deal”. To stymie such plans – or at least their disclosure before the election – Sunak and Hunt have fitted the Labour leader with an extremely uncomfortable political corset. “If he says anything daring, we’ll take him to pieces,” says one Tory strategist. “But if he doesn’t say anything bold, we’ll take him to pieces for not saying anything bold.”

I think Sunak’s team underestimates the extent to which Starmer has brought discipline to his party and bounced back since the low point of the local elections and Hartlepool by-election defeat in May 2021, and the botched Shadow Cabinet reshuffle that followed. One only had to watch the speak-your-weight performance of Jon Ashworth, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, on yesterday’s media round to grasp how determined Labour’s top team now is not to give Sunak and Hunt the headlines they want. Ashworth was about as inspiring as drying paint, without the colour. But – unfortunately for him – that was exactly what was required in the circumstances.

What Starmer should watch out for, however, is the second and more devious trap that is being set for him. It was embedded in yesterday’s lead story in the Sunday Times“Britain mulls Swiss-style ties with Brussels” – which reported that “senior government sources” were exploring the scope for new post-Brexit arrangements with the European Union that will encourage frictionless trade.

No sooner had the kite been flown, than it was hoisted down. “I don’t support that,” the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, told Sky’s Sophy Ridge. “I want to maximise the opportunities that Brexit offers.” Downing Street “categorically” denied that it was seeking a Swiss-style relationship.

Yet there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth to the story. On the BBC’s Today programme last week, Hunt said that he had “great confidence that over the years ahead we will find, outside the single market, we are able to remove the vast majority of the trade barriers that exist between us and the EU.” 

He and Sunak are united in their belief that, thanks in part to cooperation with the EU over Ukraine and the departure of the grandstanding Boris Johnson, relations with Brussels will thaw and present diplomatic openings for imaginative trade talks. The imperative to expedite such measures could hardly be clearer. As the OBR reported last week: “Our trade forecast reflects our assumption that Brexit will result in the UK’s trade intensity being 15% lower in the long run than if the UK had remained in the EU.” For those who inhabit the real world, rather than the Dingley Dell of Brexit delusion, this is a warning that cannot be ignored.

Unfortunately for the PM and Chancellor, a sufficient number of Tory backbenchers – and Cabinet ministers, for that matter – are still domiciled in Dingley Dell. Sunak has a Commons majority of 69, which means that only 35 MPs (of any party) need to vote against any proposals he makes to wreck the whole idea.

Why is he bothering? First, because he is right: unless the UK finds a way to liberalise trade with the EU its economic plight will remain structural. And second: he is trying to coax Starmer out on to ground that is even more tempting to him than divergence from Conservative fiscal plans.

With every fibre of his being, the Labour leader believes that Brexit was a historic error and a betrayal of the UK’s economic, geopolitical and cultural future. One only has to recall the energy he devoted to persuading the (Eurosceptic) Jeremy Corbyn to embrace a People’s Vote on the final deal to grasp that this is so.

Every day, he is confronted by fresh polling evidence that the voters are suffering from intensifying buyer’s remorse. According to a YouGov survey released last week, 56 percent now think it was wrong to leave the EU (versus only 32 percent who still support the decision). In a poll conducted last month by Redfield and Wilton Strategies for the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, 57 percent now support rejoining the EU – with a record 14-point lead over those who want to stick by Brexit.

In the words of one Shadow Cabinet member: “You can imagine how Keir responds viscerally to such stuff. It is catnip to all his innermost beliefs.” One sympathises. Yet the Labour leader has so far stuck to the painfully anodyne “making Brexit work” formula: a banality that must taste like ash every time it is repeated by a shadow minister.

Why, in the face of such polling data, stick with this dispiriting soundbite? Because most politics is not like passing exams, or winning forensic arguments, or prevailing in rational discourse. In reality, a general election is the aggregate of up to 46.5 million mostly emotional decisions taken by voters who do not envisage a spreadsheet or a bar chart when they put their ‘X’ in the box. They express a mulch of feelings.

And the trouble with feelings is that they can be horribly contradictory. It is perfectly possible, for example, that a majority of Britons now supports, in the abstract, the proposition that we would be better off rejoining the EU. But it is no less possible – indeed it is likely – that they would resent being urged to do so, or even to backtrack significantly on the decision they took in the referendum of 2016 and which they reaffirmed, powerfully, in the general election of 2019. 

It is one thing to accept that something is a bad idea. It is quite another to be told by the political class that you, the people, got it wrong. Yes, of course Brexit is stupid. But it’s our stupid.

Which is why, if Starmer wants to become prime minister, he must continue to exercise maximum restraint. What the Tories desperately want is to be able to caricature the Labour leader as a Remoaner restorationist, secretly plotting to undermine the 2016 referendum result and to impose the wishes of the “liberal metropolitan elite” against which that vote six years ago was a rebellion. If all that sounds absurd and histrionic – well, welcome to the world of politics.

Those who truly want the UK to rejoin the EU one day – and I am among them – must grasp the most basic precondition of such a hope. And that is to explain first what sort of country we want to apply, once again, for membership. What kind of Britain would we present for consideration? What is the vision of our nation that would propel it, in time, to renewed membership of the European family?

This is no easy question, at a time when the political class seems, en masse, to be evading the really great challenges of the 21st century (climate change, social care, technological innovation and regulation, the pathologies of globalisation, the threat of further pandemics). But it is the question that any prospective prime minister should be asking and answering with confidence and passion.

We need to hear a lot more from Starmer on such matters. The next election has to be more than a choice between a banker and a lawyer for prime minister. 

Yet in this respect, the Labour leader has been granted one great advantage. We all know precisely what we mean, or meant, by “Thatcher’s Britain”. Or “Blair’s Britain”. Or even – God help us – “Johnson’s Britain”. But close your eyes and tell me what image, what vision, what dream of a shining city on a hill is inspired within you by the words “Sunak’s Britain.”

Don’t worry. I’ll wait.


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