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Keir Starmer has started to sound like Boris Johnson on Brexit

Labour leader’s Damascene conversion to the process he once fought tooth and nail against has him riding high in the polls

Is there a bigger case of political Stockholm syndrome in the world right now than the one involving UK Labour leader Keir Starmer?

Held captive for so long by the Tory government’s politically divisive Brexit process, unable to speak his mind or reference his former anti-Brexit arguments for fear of reigniting the most polarising current in UK politics, Starmer now tells us that “Britain’s future is outside the EU”.

That future is “not in the single market, not in the customs union, not with a return to freedom of movement”, he wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Daily Express newspaper.

The Labour leader, who campaigned more than most in his party against Brexit and as former shadow Brexit minister pushed for a second referendum, now believes Britain is failing to exploit its newfound “sovereignty” outside the clutches of those bendy banana merchants in Brussels.


His deprogramming has been so successful that he has even begun to sound like his former captor Boris Johnson. “Our European friends and competitors aren’t just eating our lunch – they’re nicking our dinner money as well,” he wrote.

His “Make Brexit Work” slogan appears to be a reformulation of Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done”.

Despite poll after poll showing public support for Brexit at an all-time low, Starmer argues that it is not Brexit itself that has Britain in a weakened economic state – the UK is the only G7 economy not back to its pre-pandemic size – but the Tory government’s “total mismanagement” of it.

He blames the “paper-thin” EU-UK trade deal struck by Johnson’s former government for a host of issues, including the threat to the UK car industry, which employs some 800,000 people, from incoming EU regulations that could see tariffs imposed on UK electric car exports into the EU from 2027.

But also for UK scientists being locked out of the EU’s €95 billion Horizon science programme and for incoming import controls on goods entering the UK, which UK food companies say will further push up food prices. The last could have a big impact on Irish food exports to the UK.

Having initially opposed any renegotiation of the EU-UK trade deal, Starmer now believes London needs to strike a better deal.

His Damascene conversion, no doubt justified behind closed doors as the only workable tack in a country and body politic so entirely fatigued with the Brexit issue, has him and his Labour Party riding high in the polls.

One recent election modelling based on a megapoll of new constituency boundaries in the UK suggests Starmer is on course for a landslide victory at the next UK general election. Most polls give Labour a 20 percentage point lead over Rishi Sunak’s Tory party.

One suspects much of this has been driven by the scandals engulfing Johnson and Liz Truss’s mini-budget fiasco, both of which have marred not just the Tory party but cast the whole Brexit project in an entirely dysfunctional light.

According to insiders, one of the primary reasons why the UK’s trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, the first ones negotiated after the UK’s EU exit, appear to favour the latter two countries is that they were rushed by the Truss government, presumably so they could be presented as evidence of a Brexit dividend.

Sunak has steadied the ship politically for the Tory party but his arrival in Number 10 hasn’t closed the gap on Labour as much as Tory backbenchers would have hoped.

Starmer’s pivot on Brexit is undoubtedly designed to recapture the fabled “red wall” of former Labour seats which voted for Brexit last time. It means he has to steer clear of the facts on the ground, facts he would have latched onto as a former Brexit sceptic.

The fact that the process is expected to wipe 4 per cent off UK gross domestic product (GDP) in the medium term, equivalent to £40 billion a year in lost tax revenue, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

The fact that the UK has suffered significant loss of business investment since the 2016 referendum, some £29 billion, or £1,000 per household, according to a study by the Bank of England.

And perhaps worst of all, the hit to the UK’s trading position with the EU. According to a study by our own Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), UK exports to the EU were down by 16 per cent in 2022 while imports from the EU had declined by 20 per cent relative to the scenario in which Brexit had not occurred.

Labour shortages are also more severe and inflation higher than in other peer countries, a reflection of the lack of EU immigration and the impact of import controls on prices. Even former Ukip leader and now GB News presenter Nigel Farage admits “Brexit has failed”.

Starmer is content to sidestep these worrying trends or at least blame them on a mismanaged Brexit process rather than on Brexit itself.

If his strategy pays off and he becomes the next UK prime minister, he then faces a difficult choice of pushing on with his new “making Brexit work” agenda and the mounting snag list of issues that goes with it, or executing another big U-turn and bringing the UK back within the EU’s orbit. You wouldn’t rule it out given what we’ve seen to date.