December 16, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith
With no election until 2024, the Labour Party’s main role in our political system is to provide effective opposition. With the post-Brexit deals still to be done, the level of scrutiny required to hold the Tories accountable for decisions that will affect this country for decades requires a forensic mind, and considerable intellectual flexibility. The last person Boris Johnson would want to face across the despatch box in Parliament over the next few years is Keir Starmer.
The Labour Party should not hurry itself into a decision on its future direction. There is certainly little it can do over the next two months as Boris Johnson’s deal is likely to fly through Parliament with few if any amendments given his large majority.
But as we all know, leaving the European Union on the 31st January is not, in any way, getting Brexit done. We then have a few months to shape the future trading relations with the EU, which, should we need anything other than a simple trade deal that takes us out of most reciprocal arrangements, will need to be extended.
The trade deals we make with other countries need to be carefully scrutinised, particularly those with the USA and China. We have little to no experience of making comprehensive trade deals, as it has been done for us for 47 years by the EU. So, although everything is now the Conservatives’ responsibility, the input from opposition parties, particularly of expertise but also of proper scrutiny, is vital.
Of the many problems with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, little was more stark than his ability to have a proper debate with anyone. This was a function first of all of lack of practice, as he had spent his political career lurching from protests of the persuaded to rallies of the decided. But secondly he lacked the intellectual flexibility to adjust what he was saying and doing to the answers he was getting. This meant effectively that he would ask a question in PMQs, and whatever answer he received, instead of drilling down and interrogating that, he would simply move onto his next question. I would argue from his interviews that he fundamentally didn’t understand the EU, and the UK’s arrangements with it. Go back and look at interviews about ‘a customs union’ and you can see the problem.
Over the next five years, what is required from the leader of the opposition is not opportunism, but proper scrutiny, the ability to understand even the most complicated of issues and briefs, and the intellectual flexibility to challenge what is being said or asked of him and her. What the UK needs as it negotiates and commits to some quite complicated legal agreements is a legal mind.
Emily Thornberry, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon and Keir Starmer have that. But Starmer was Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) after a stellar legal career as a defence lawyer specialising in human rights. As a skilled courtroom operator, he is an expert at dealing with the adversarial nature of Commons debate, and as someone who would have to have understood and responded to complicated briefs, he will be much more on top of any detail than Boris Johnson could possibly be.
The problem with Keir Starmer is that he is very much someone unlikely to be able to connect with the working class heartlands in the North that Labour will have to win back in order to get near power again. He is from the London metropolitan intellectual wing of the party and is far from the socialist tub-thumper that Labour members feel most comfortable with.
However, Labour have 201 seats. They are highly unlikely to win the next election. Keir Starmer would be a far more sensible choice than Corbyn, and would certainly win back quite a few seats, particularly as he would be seen as a far more trustworthy leader than Johnson. Also, Starmer can promote some of the rising stars of the party, such as Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon, to positions in which they can be properly tested and the public can get used to them.
Let’s look at it another way: Right now, when explaining the progress of Brexit, who does Boris Johnson least want to see across the despatch box?
So, I would say that whilst Sir Keir Starmer is not Mr Right for the Labour Party, he is Mr Right Now for them, and the country.