OPINION - Europe-itis has infected Starmer too, and now he’s harder to trust

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer leaving Europol in The Hague  (PA Wire)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer leaving Europol in The Hague (PA Wire)

There’s a new parlour game being played in all the pinko-liberal-remainiac north London dinner parties I knock about at. It’s called “But What The F*** Did Sir Keir Starmer REALLY Mean When He Said He’d Make Brexit Work?”

Rules are simple. Someone kicks off by saying: “I see Starmer has categorically ruled out the UK rejoining the EU in any way, shape or form under a new Labour government.”

Guests then spend the next two hours offering opinions as to why this is, in fact, a charade designed only to keep Red Wall voters on side until he becomes prime minister.

The game concludes with a unanimous agreement that we’ll all be back in the EU before you can say “that’s a terrific bit of goat’s cheese … from La Fromagerie?”

I am conscious, however, that up there on the Red Wall they too are playing a variant of this game. Only theirs is called “But What The F*** Is It About ‘Labour Will Make Brexit Work’ Those Daft Islington Tossers Don’t Get?”

This is a handy place to be for a leader of the Opposition, tip-toeing through a Brexit minefield that may yet blow up his path to power. Fast forward a couple of years, however, and you can bet at least one lot of us, maybe even all of us, will be feeling deeply let down.

After 13 years of the Tory circus plus Labour’s near-death experience under Jeremy Corbyn, many argue that Sir Keir can be forgiven for concentrating on winning the election next year and sweeping up the mess afterwards.

His trip to Paris this week was a typical masterclass in his political obfuscation when it comes to Brexit.

On Tuesday lunchtime, I received a multitude of WhatsApps cheering the fact that Emmanuel Macron had opened a door (okay, a small door; more of a catflap) to the UK’s European rehabilitation under Labour.

By teatime, there’s a second wave of messages; gloom that Sir Keir had apparently ruled such a return out as a non-starter. I replied to them all, before and after, with exactly the same message: “Who knows what he’ll do? Does even he?”

Sir Keir’s Brexit policy du jour — to seek “closer ties” with the EU when the partnership deal is reviewed in 2025 but never taking Britain back into the customs union or single market — is a classic Sir Keir don’t-scare-the-horses fudge.

He knows the EU isn’t interested in helping him fix the UK’s Brexit psychodrama. They’ve moved on.

It’s not just on Brexit where he keeps us guessing on what he really thinks. If politics is a puzzle, has there ever been a more cryptic politician?

His big pitch of late has been about restoring trust in politics, but he can be grateful that the bar for political integrity is these days set so low, even Rishi Sunak couldn’t limbo it.

The Labour leader is, as the old joke has it, a Marxist of the Groucho tendency: ‘These are my principles and if you don’t like them... well, I have others’

The Labour leader is, as the old joke has it, a Marxist of the Groucho tendency: “These are my principles and if you don’t like them... well, I have others.”

He made a slew of promises when campaigning for the Labour leadership, many of which have since been discarded with such brazen shamelessness as would make Boris Johnson blush.

Public ownership of public services, union tuition fees, abolishing the two-child cap for benefits and raising income tax for top earners. All these cast-iron pledges, made at a time when soliciting the votes of Labour Party members, have been casually binned one by one.

Most of the time he hasn’t even bothered masking his cynicism. “We are likely to move on from that commitment,” he said when challenged about tuition fees. “I don’t see [the word] ‘nationalisation’ there,” when challenged about his pledge to place energy companies into common ownership.

These are not trifling adjustments, but the abandonment of core policy promises that got him elected as leader. It’s almost as though Sir Keir’s version of political integrity is elastic enough to include cynically telling people whatever they want to hear.

Westminster’s pattern of dishonest pragmatism, or pragmatic dishonesty if you prefer, over Europe that began with David Cameron’s bluff being called over the 2016 Referendum and peaked with Boris “two Telegraph columns” Johnson, runs on and on.

What was once a Conservative Party contagion over Europe has now infected Labour. Until our political leaders demonstrate the ultimate integrity — the courage to tell voters truths they don’t want to hear — we’ll all suffer.

Matt Kelly is editor-in-chief of the New European.