Four and a half years after the referendum that started it all, the end of 2020 saw the final conclusion of the Brexit saga. Some have celebrated it, some have mourned it, and others will have been quietly relieved for the whole thing to finally be over. One of those likely to have marked the occasion with quiet relief is Labour Leader Keir Starmer.
Ever since he was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union in October 2016, and throughout his time as Labour leader, the merits of whether to back or oppose Brexit have been at the forefront of Starmer’s political decision making. It’s a path that has led him from being one of the main voices in Parliament demanding a second referendum to ultimately whipping his MPs to back the Government’s final deal.
Whether the decision to back the deal was right or wrong depends heavily on how smoothly the next few months of post-Brexit reality pans out and Starmer himself would probably argue that in the end there wasn’t really much of a choice at all. With the deal left so late that the only alternative would have been the chaos of no deal, anything other than full support would have inevitably been painted as dangerous politicking and putting the country at severe risk – completely contrary to the image of sense and competence that have come to define his leadership.
But regardless of whether his hands were tied or not, a decision to back the deal was made and it’s likely to have long lasting consequences. Starmer’s previous history as a cheerleader for a second referendum has undoubtedly left a lasting bad taste amongst some traditional Labour voters. Now, if Boris’s deal turns about to be as bad as ardent Remainers expect it to be, then for years to come they will remember Starmer as the man who when given the opportunity to oppose it, instead actively aided the Conservative’s deal through Parliament.
Despite these risks, as 2021 dawns Starmer has every reason to believe he is beginning the year in as strong a position as could have been hoped for 12 months ago. His response to the pandemic has allowed him to cement his image as a competent leader, consistently ahead of the Government on all the major calls. And with Brexit finally receding as an issue of importance, there is a real opportunity to make inroads reconnecting with both the young, urban, Remainer wing of the party and the older, traditional Red-Wall voters.
Yet it would be naïve to assume Brexit will totally disappear as an issue in 2021. The deal agreed in haste on Christmas Eve merely represents a starting point for our future relationship with the EU. There will almost certainly be further divergence from the UK and retaliatory moves from the EU, with further rounds of negotiations being a regular fixture to resolve these disputes. Every time these squabbles arise Starmer will once again have to make tough decisions about whether Labour backs a close harmonious relationship with our EU friends, or stands up for what the Conservatives will try to present as British interests.
Like the rest of us, the Labour leader will be hoping that 2021 can represent a clean break with the past. Don’t be surprised though if the long shadow of 2020 has other ideas.