Brexit ruined Britain’s appetite for revolution. That makes Starmer’s job harder

Rafael Behr

Before administering any painful procedure, doctors talk to their patients with a careful balance of candour and tact. Too graphic a warning might trigger refusal to cooperate, but pretending something won’t hurt is a betrayal of trust. Politicians face the same dilemma with painful reforms. Speak too frankly and you spook the electorate. Deny the scale of a task and you have no mandate. This is especially tricky for opposition leaders who want voters to feel upbeat about the future under a changed regime. Itemising pain kills the buzz.
“The NHS is not sustainable unless we make serious, deep, long-term changes,” Keir Starmer said on Monday, trying to sound candid. It will be “hard”, “difficult” and “challenging”, but worth it to reach the goal of a health service “fit for the future”. On cost, he was tactful. Decisions will be made “on a full appreciation of reality – on the state of the NHS and our public finances”. In other words, Dr Starmer says try to relax but be prepared for some fiscal discomfort. Labour’s pledges are worthy and expensive – reduced waiting times; integration of health and social care; a digital upgrade of the whole service. Named revenue sources – VAT on private school fees; closing non-dom tax loopholes – cover only a fraction of the likely bill. Those are sticking plasters, which is what the opposition leader accuses Rishi Sunak of applying in avoidance of longer-term solutions. It is sensible for a party to avoid too much detail about its manifesto this far out from an election. Why give the enemy time to raid your best ideas and trash the rest? When it comes to awkward truths in a campaign, the virtue of telling it straight rarely outweighs the risk of making a nervous electorate flinch from your touch.
The cautionary tale is Theresa May’s decision to confront the cost of social care in her 2017 election manifesto. She thought she had a sufficient poll lead to seek permission to do something hard. It looked brave for all of a few minutes, until the policy was called a “dementia tax” and fired back as a torpedo into her campaign. Democracy has always involved some tension between honesty and salesmanship, but it feels severe right now. Part of the problem is sheer exhaustion after years of successive crises, some visited on Britain from overseas (Covid; war in Ukraine), others homegrown (Brexit; Liz Truss). They have cascaded across one another, merging into a morale-sapping permacrisis.
Solving difficult problems is an exercise in deferred gratification. There is an input of energy and resources that doesn’t yield immediate reward. When politicians speak of reform to upgrade public services, for example, they are pleading for patience. That asks a lot of people who have been locked down for a pandemic, had their operations delayed and their trains cancelled, then seen their stagnant wages gobbled by inflation.
The past few years have put British voters in the mood for payback, not more sacrifice. This is also why Starmer’s dilemma is most acute on the question of Europe. Opinion polls show a majority thinking Brexit was a mistake (and even Nigel Farage says it isn’t working), but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an appetite for re-enacting the battles fought since 2016 in reverse.
Any campaign to go back into the EU must recognise that the old membership terms are no longer available. Our continental neighbours would want to see sustained cross-party pro-European consensus before taking any British application seriously. Rejoin is not rewind. It is the work of a generation. The politics of shuffling closer to Europe from the outside are not much easier. Proper access to the single market is the economic game-changer. That re-opens arguments about free movement (or open-door immigration policy, as the Tories would cast it) and taking regulatory dictation from Brussels – the issues that polarised debate in the first place.
Talk of softening the blow from Brexit tends logically to acceptance that the best Brexit is none at all. One test of whether Starmer is right to swerve away from that road is to ponder how glad many incumbent Conservative MPs would be if he took it. It suits Labour to keep Brexit in the background, as one more thing the Tories messed up. It is a significant factor in general economic malaise and a brake on recovery, but not the only one. The effect on politics is harder to quantify, and more pernicious. The harm flows from contradictions in a project that was genuinely revolutionary and cynically fraudulent at the same time. Brexit mined justified anger with a status quo that wasn’t working, then used that resource to fuel a project for impoverishing the people who most urgently needed change.
That deception set a threshold of calculated dishonesty or downright stupidity for ministerial office. Anyone willing or able to engage with the complexities of Britain’s predicament in the third decade of the 21st century was disqualified from joining Boris Johnson’s cabinet. Those perverse recruitment criteria still stand. Sunak passed the test of ideological stupefaction. Making a national mission of a folly burned up irreplaceable reserves of political energy. People who operate the machinery of government are demoralised by requests to steer into ditches. Voters who were given reason to expect great things on liberation from Brussels, and got nothing, will be warier of investing hope in a different, Labour-branded project for radical upheaval. Depleted willingness to confront hard choices is a Brexit legacy that impedes Starmer even more than the economic cost. He can talk about NHS reform, green investment, ambitious housebuilding targets, all without getting lured into the weeds of European renegotiation.
He can say, correctly, that he is focusing on people’s actual priorities. He can diagnose grave problems and prescribe solutions in many areas, steering tactfully away from the hardest issue. But when it comes to delivering on those promises, he will find the body politic scarred and weakened by the years of Brexit malpractice. A symptom of how deep the syndrome goes is the opposition leader’s reluctance to call it by its name.