Richard North, 22/02/2021  

Concern over post-Brexit policy implementation necessarily demands that stress points and failures are closely examined, better to enable policy weakness to be understood, and remedies offered in order to strengthen our position.

Alternatively there are those who highlight stress points and failures for entirely different reasons. They wish to use them to prove a need to rejoin the EU, and the more failures they can record, the better.

While the motivations of the two groups is very different, the commonality of interest in acquiring similar data might confuse weak-minded observers as to what precisely the motives of information gatherers are.

For this reason one can see why Starmer and his Labour Party are reluctant to attack the Johnson administration's performance on Brexit. In the "Red Wall" constituencies where Starmer needs to recover seats, such actions might be seen as favouring the "rejoin" tendency yet, if it is made clear that the critical role is being adopted in order to strengthen Brexit, the Europhilic core of the Labour Party might take umbrage.

Caught between irreconcilable sentiments, it must be much easier for Labour strategists to adopt the omerta regime, leaving Johnson to self-destruct in his own time, allowing Labour candidates to reap the electoral dividend without getting their hands dirty.

Since Labour's policies on Brexit over time have hardly been consistent, exposing them to possible counter-attack if they are too strident in the criticism of Johnson, there is a further incentive for the Party to counsel silence, keeping the political narrative on safer territory.

Nevertheless, this strategy could backfire. The aftermath of Brexit is going to be with us for a long time and, long before we see any tangible benefits from leaving, we will be seeing adverse effects stacking up, threatening any post-Covid economic recovery.

In a rational political environment, therefore, there would be merit in Starmer setting out detailed policies for making good the many flaws in Johnson's deals – the TCA and the Withdrawal Agreement, with special reference to the Irish Protocol – by which means we could judge the suitability of Labour for government.

Where this idea falls down, of course, is that we do not occupy a rational political environment. If we did, neither Johnson nor Corbyn would have been presented as the alternatives for prime minister at the last general election.

When it comes to the next election, Johnson must be hoping that the afterglow from conquering Covid-19 – in the happy event that this has happened – will translate into electoral support – the equivalent of Maggie's "Falklands effect".

Timing here is not in Johnson's favour. Assuming that the UK epidemic is largely under control by late summer, and we are more-or-less back to normal by the end of the year, much of the hardship and trauma will be a distant memory by the time we go to the polls in 2024.

And nor, taking the cue from war leader Winston Churchill – with whom Johnson would like to be compared – can the glow of "victory" necessarily be translated into electoral success. After all, despite his heroic performance during the war years, Churchill lost the 1945 general election by a landslide.

If memories of Covid-19 have faded by 2024, though, that will not necessarily be the case with Brexit. Many pundits believe that there is much suppressed demand within the economy and, once the restrictions are lifted, we will see a surge in spending which will drive a consumer-led recovery. But the adverse effects of Brexit could delay of even block a recovery.

Thus, on the basis of "it's the economy stupid", letting Johnson run with his flawed version of Brexit could be an astute political move – provided that, at the last minute, Starmer was able to come up with some plausible options for improving our economic prospects.

Such calculations, though, could come to naught if Covid-19 defies expectations and comes roaring back in the form of a new variant that its resistant to the current range of vaccinations. A resurgent epidemic over the winter could create community stresses which could be hard to contain, and damage Johnson's political standing.

What would make that especially difficult for him is that the hard core Brexiteers also tend to oppose lockdowns. They are also more likely to be anti-vaxxers and, supposedly on civil liberty grounds, oppose vaccination certificates – even though these have been compulsory for entry into some countries since 1959.

With Brexit supposedly "done", and therefore discounted, Johnson could end up being judged by his Brexit support group on his performance – or lack of it – on Covid. This again, is another factor which could influence Starmer, who is on stronger ground with Covid and can attack there without reviving enmities over Brexit.

Delving deeper into the toxic mess which British politics has become, the battle over the NHS and education, making up the classic "schools 'n' hospitals" agenda will continue to drive the political debate, and we will see Johnson anxious to capture the high ground here.

With the legacy media unable or unwilling to address Brexit issues, having already largely lost interest in them, we might see the 2024 general election campaign dominated by the traditional battleground with Brexit not getting a look in. Starmer's previous performance on the issue, therefore, many have little electoral impact.

So far, it would thus seem, most of the political calculus stacks up in favour of Starmer keeping schtum about Brexit – but for that one possibility that the adverse effects will have a serious and highly visible impact on our economic recovery.

Mere damage will not be enough as there are so many ways of burying bad news in official statistics that even a moderate hit will be easy to disguise and hard to pin down. In the run-up to the election, the economic damage much be so serious and so incontrovertible that it must be splattered all over the media and on everyone's lips.

The difficulty in this case will be trying to unravel the relative effects of Covid and Brexit. But the evaluation will not only be carried out in absolute terms. Relative performances will also be taken into account, with comparisons between the UK and EU Member States of special relevance.

Here, perversely, the EU may come to Johnson's rescue. Its botched and delayed vaccination programme may allow Covid-19 to proliferate on the continent, prolonging the pandemic, increasing the costs and delaying the economic recovery. Some believe it could even trigger another euro crisis.

Struggling EU Member States would certainly help Johnson electorally, as any economic stresses in the UK can be played down if our European "partners" are suffering more. Deft political spinning can present their difficulties as justifying Brexit.

On the other hand, if Europe does not get to grips with Covid and becomes an incubator for new strains which then spread throughout the UK, anti-EU rhetoric- already ramping up to uncomfortable levels – could play in Johnson's favour, especially with a little help from the right-wing press. In that event, hostility from Starmer on Brexit issues could be counterproductive.

When all is said and done, though, there is one overpowering reason why Starmer and his team should keep quiet. Basically, in what is a complex and contentious issue, where there are no clear or easy solutions, he and his people are out of their depths. They simply have neither the knowledge nor the capability to make a worthwhile contribution to the debate.

Probably, therefore, we will see a continued lack of engagement from Labour, aided and abetted by the legacy media and a complicit Conservative Party. But that doesn't mean the debate will disappear. We have been used to "Europe" being the political elephant-in-the-room, so this is more of the same – although we have a lot of experience at poking that elephant.

And if there is one thing the 2016 referendum should have taught the politicians – assuming they are capable of learning anything – is that ignoring a subject doesn't make it go away. Whatever political rationale there may be for Starmer keeping his head down on Brexit, it will still be likely to rear up and bite him when he least expects it.

That reason, and that reason alone, suggests that Starmer's current stance is unwise – the political equivalent of penny-wise, pound foolish. Despite any short-term benefits, it will cost him in the end.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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