A big part of political combat is over what the fight is actually about. Traditionally, the Conservative Party has preferred to fight elections on the issues like defence, the economy and crime, while Labour has preferred to fight elections on issues like health or education.
The success of Boris Johnson in 2019 was partly down to turning a traditional Labour issue – health – into a Conservative area of strength, in part by linking the need to move past the Brexit deadlock with the ability to spend more money on healthcare. The success of Tony Blair in 1997 was in doing the same to crime and Jeremy Corbyn was able to pull a similar trick off in 2017 in order to deprive Theresa May of her majority.
That’s part of why both Keir Starmer and Ed Davey, the new Liberal Democrat leader, this week have both sounded the same note on Brexit: that it is, if not for life, at least going to last well past Christmas. Starmer has said that the issue of whether the United Kingdom is in or outside the EU has been settled for the foreseeable, as has Davey. Neither plans to campaign to rejoin anytime soon.
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The political logic of both men’s moves is similar, but not identical. They believe that keeping the question of Brexit alive helps the Conservatives – and indeed, so does Boris Johnson. Starmer wants the political fight to be about whether Johnson is competent and well-equipped to manage the country, so he doesn’t want that argument to be muddled by questions around whether he is more or less committed to Brexit. For Davey, the focus on Brexit is also unhelpful, but in part because he knows that, unlike Labour or the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, as with the other minor parties, struggle to get a hearing on more than one issue.
Focusing on overturning Brexit makes it harder for the Liberal Democrats to get their points across on climate change, education or social care.
The other crucial difference is that Davey knows that if the Liberal Democrats ever return to government again, they will do so as part of a coalition – and all of their policy priorities will only be implemented after reaching a deal with another party. Rejoining the EU is not like pressing the “undo” button on your computer: it will involve years of negotiation, just like leaving the union did and still does.
Any party running on a platform of rejoining is committing to spending years, perhaps a decade, negotiating the terms. Other member states could veto our re-entry, or the renegotiated terms could be turned down in a referendum here in the United Kingdom. It would dominate the life and work of multiple ministers, and the red lines in any negotiation would only be partially shaped by the Liberal Democrats, which would mean the party giving up vast swathes of policy in other areas simply to start negotiations that could end in failure or a veto from another nation of the EU.
No third party seeking to influence the government or enter it as a coalition partner should ever sign up to a process with such an uncertain outcome and the possibility of no reward at all.
It would be the same mistake former leader Nick Clegg made of signing away tangible policy commitments for a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which was then lost.
At the moment, the Liberal Democrats are in exactly the right place on Europe: their constitution states that the party believes we are better off in Europe, but they have no policy platform to actively campaign to take us back in – a sensible position for a third party.
That calculation doesn’t apply for Labour, however. If Keir Starmer wants to reopen the question of our EU membership, he will do it as prime minister, and his freedom to operate will thus be significantly greater. His case for keeping quiet on the European question is solely political. That’s a gamble of its own. The calculation that Starmer is making is not just that keeping quiet on all things EU makes it more likely he will win the next election, but that a centre-left policy platform can be delivered just as easily outside the bloc as within it.
If he’s wrong, and the consequences of Brexit make delivering his programme impossible, he might find that his strategy for getting into Downing Street makes staying there a lot harder.