A year and five days before the UK is due to leave the European Union, Keir Starmer is confronting a series of uncomfortable truths. He never wanted Brexit to happen and still doesn’t – but he accepts there is nothing he or anyone else can do to stop it. Asked if the impending breach with our 27 EU partners is now inevitable, the shadow Brexit secretary is clear. “Article 50 was triggered a year ago,” he says. “It expires in 52 weeks and a few days, and I don’t think there is any realistic prospect of it being revoked. Therefore we will be leaving the EU in March 2019.”
So there it is. The man in charge of the Brexit policy of a pro-European opposition party that could soon be in government, that campaigned for Remain, and two-thirds of whose supporters backed staying in the European Union on referendum day, holds out no hope of reversing the decision. He takes no pleasure in saying so. “I campaigned to stay in the EU. I voted to stay in the EU and I was very disappointed by the outcome. And if there was another vote I would vote to remain in.”
But he doesn’t think there will be a second referendum, nor does he seem to believe there should be one. Starmer may regret deeply what will come to pass on 29 March next year, but he feels equally strongly that what must be must be. “Having asked the electorate for a view by way of the referendum, we have to respect the result,” he says. “If you find yourself in a position you would rather was not there, you have to make it work. We have to do that for the current generation and for future generations.”
Many Labour MPs and supporters will be dismayed to hear him talk this way and he knows that. “Is it difficult? Of course it’s difficult,” he says. “Almost everybody in the Labour party has a view on Brexit. But almost no (two) people have the same view. They all give me their opinions all of the time in texts, in emails, in one-to- one conversations, in groups.”
From the top to bottom of Labour there are differences of view. Jeremy Corbyn may inspire young people but he is a Eurosceptic at odds on Brexit with much of the youthful mass membership that is his powerbase. The left is split within its own ranks. Most of the unions that fund Labour are in favour of staying in the single market, but Corbyn seems implacably opposed. Wherever Starmer treads, there are competing demands he has to try to satisfy. “You have got the basic mathematics that show that, broadly speaking, two-thirds of our [Labour] voters voted to remain and one-third voted to leave. You have then got the flipside of that when you get to the constituency representation, which is the other way round.
“Two-thirds of our MPs are in Leave seats and one-third are in Remain seats, and MPs quite rightly feel strongly that they should be trying to put across the views of those they have been elected by. That inevitably means there are different views.”
It is not just the Leavers versus the Remainers. “There is also the matter of how close people think we should be to the EU [after Brexit]. There are different views in the different groupings in the Labour party.”
The only thing he can do, he says, is try to keep the party together by managing the multiplicity of opinions. His objective is to prevent Labour splitting on Brexit as the Tories have for decades over Europe. “My view has been informed by my strong belief that we really cannot allow the Labour party to divide and break up on this issue. We have got to hold the party together, and of course that means there are huge challenges.”
As if to make the point for him, on the day we speak his shadow cabinet colleague Owen Smith is sacked by Corbyn for saying Labour must back staying in the single market and a second referendum – both of which are against current party policy.
So given this constant internal tug-of-war, what kind of Brexit does Starmer himself…