Is Sir Keir Starmer wasting everybody’s time on his visit to Dublin and Belfast? In both cities people would like to know what Labour proposes to do about the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Sir Keir has spoken frequently about the importance of honesty in politics. He has given thanks that he is not as other men, and in particular that he is not like Boris Johnson.
“I think with flexibility on both sides, with good faith, statecraft and trust around the negotiating table, we can deal with the remaining issues.
“My concern is that we have a Prime Minister who doesn’t have those attributes. Trust is very important in all of this.”
His interlocutors will be delighted to hear they can trust Sir Keir, but will also want to know what Labour would do about the Northern Ireland Protocol. Will he trust them so completely that he tells them?
The other day Andrew Marr asked Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow Home Secretary, “How would you resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol?” She replied:
“I think it’s, you know, the challenge is to make sure you can pull everybody together, not try and rip up the rules in the way that again Boris Johnson is trying to do, but again to pull everyone together in order to be able to do that.”
A rough translation of this passage might read: “We would do it better because we’re Labour, which means we’re better people than that lying bastard.”
This is not just a debating point. It has practical consequences. Both Dublin and Brussels want to know what kind of trade-offs would be on offer from a Labour Government.
Should they do a deal with Johnson, or make life as difficult as they can for him, and hold out for a better settlement reached after the next general election with, they hope, Sir Keir?
Consider the poor impression Jeremy Corbyn made on his hosts when as Labour leader he visited Dublin at the end of May 2019, shortly before Johnson became Prime Minister.
Corbyn would not tell the Irish leader, Leo Varadkar, what Labour’s policy on Brexit was. Instead he stressed his desire to protect the rights of the Irish community in Archway, on the northernmost edge of his constituency in London.
According to Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, in their book Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn,
“One member of the party’s delegation recalls the discussion that ensued as not only the most embarrassing meeting of their life, but a decisive moment on Varadkar’s own journey towards compromise with Johnson on the Irish border.”
Sir Keir’s tone will no doubt be better than Corbyn’s, but will he offer any more substance?
One of the most outspoken of the Tory rebels against Johnson, Tobias Ellwood, recently wrote that many difficulties, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, “would disappear if we dare to advance our Brexit model by rejoining the EU Single Market”.
This is undoubtedly what many Remainers, including many leading figures in the Labour Party, would like to do. But the effect of Ellwood’s intervention was to strengthen Johnson, under whom there is no question of rejoining the Single Market, and to make life more difficult for Labour, which felt forced to deny having any intention of rejoining.
Honesty and integrity are wonderful things, but should not be taken to mean that you can actually tell people what you propose to do.