Much has been made of my recent comments on Brexit and the (currently hypothetical, of course) prospect of rejoining the EU in the future.
I spoke for myself as the only Opposition MP in Kent. My remarks have been paraphrased and misinterpreted as being an attack on my party leader, Keir Starmer. They were neither meant as a criticism, a “warning” or an embarrassment to him or the Labour Party.
Backbenchers can speak more freely on party matters, and I have always been very vocal and honest about my opposition to Brexit and the reasons why. The Brexit deal may now be signed and the last few years of voting against it consigned to history, but the long-promised new trade relationships, so-called sovereignty and the “taking back of control” are still all just oft-repeated sound bites. We still wait to collectively bask in their Nirvana-like glory.
In the meantime, of course it was flippant to remark that most Labour colleagues would campaign to rejoin the EU – I can only speak with any certainty about my own intentions. But it is no secret that the vast majority of us were very vocally opposed to Brexit and actively fought to protect the country from a deal that left us far worse off than the deal of being a member of the EU 27.
To pretend otherwise is profoundly dishonest, and – as the party of government seems to have now lost every single dissenting voice and become a homogenous group in the sense of appealing solely to the 52 per cent, and their newly won “red wall” demographic – there has surely never been more need for those who represent the views of the other half of the country.
Back in 2019, Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly challenged Theresa May and then Boris Johnson to call an early general election and every time he did so the majority of Labour MPs willed him to just be quiet. We knew in the pit of our stomachs that we could not win an election based on the twin toxicities of our leader and Brexit.
So when Keir was elected party leader last Spring by a landslide, Labour MPs breathed a huge sigh of relief. One of the reasons I did so was that as our leader on Brexit, he had very obviously forged a relationship of visible mutual respect with his EU counterparts.
I had every confidence that whatever rubbish Boris Johnson put before the House of Commons, either a skeleton of a deal or the disastrous spectre of none, Keir would deftly destroy it in the way the he verbally takes apart the bumbling nonsense the PM spouts weekly on Wednesdays.
When the deal dropped this Christmas, the leader’s office thought it best to back it – and I understand that decision. It is a relative luxury in parliament to sit on the back benches as part of HM Opposition and vote solely with your conscience in a way that honours the pledges and promises you made to your constituents without serious consequences, I know that.
I also realise my honesty may have “done my career no favours” and I am now almost bound to continue to be overlooked for promotion to Labour’s front bench, but I genuinely couldn’t care less about that. I’m not here for a job in the shadow Cabinet. I’m here to stand and shout up for Kent, to tell the truth about our plight as the garden of England morphs into the lorry park of England over the coming months.
To speak of our desperate need and heartfelt desire to nurture our close economic and social dependency on our near neighbours, business partners, health workers, farm workers, lecturers, hospitality staff, customers and friends across that stretch of water.
The biggest employer in my city is the University of Kent, also known as the “European university”. Our hospitality businesses, long before the debilitating punch in the guts delivered by Covid-19, had already felt the low blows of Brexit. So where are we going as a nation now that the deal is done? And what’s next for the Labour Party? Are we simply trying to appeal to Leavers or that famed red wall we lost only a year ago? Is that now the official policy or direction for us?
As a politician, I know that this increasingly feels like unknown territory for Labour, and I am starting to fear that our perceived apparent co-ownership of the Brexit deal could unfortunately be our version of the Liberal Democrats sad tuition fees legacy – something we may end up justifying or explaining away for some years to come. I hope I’m wrong.
But if it is indeed now Labour’s policy to prioritise the reclamation of our red wall once again, where does that leave seats like mine? Some of those seats, desperately frustrated by this inward-looking government, are like the ripe, low-hanging fruit unpicked in the orchards of Kent, there for the taking. And how on Earth do we even begin to regain seats in Scotland, vital gains for electoral success?
Johnson now leads a Conservative Party with what appears to be one sole view on Brexit. I believe that Keir offers the country a credible, intelligent and grown-up alternative to that blinkered “global Britain” view.
However, areas like Scotland, the southwest and southeast of England need to hear policies that show both an understanding of the catastrophe of Brexit and plausible plans for the rebuilding of a strong new relationship with Europe. And yes, one that leaves open the possibility of rejoining the EU at some time in the future.
Rosie Duffield is the Labour MP for Canterbury