Jeremy Corbyn’s latest Labour reshuffle has – rather predictably – prompted a storm of critique about the people the leader appointed, and the means he chose to appoint them.
Yet this particular cloud has a potential silver lining: the choice of Keir Starmer as Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU (aka Shadow Brexit Minister). The significance of this appointment has largely been missed in the last couple of days in the media.
First of all, Starmer’s background is significant – he was Director of Public Prosecutions for the CPS until 2013, and then only became a MP in 2015, at the age of 53. Carl Gardner (@carlgardner), who I asked about Starmer, described him as “having a strong reputation as a human rights lawyer” in his time before his public prosecutions role. Starmer is hence one of the few Labour front line politicians with major experience outside of politics before entering the House of Commons. His star rose so fast in Labour that he was even encouraged to run for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, something that he – sensibly – declined to do. Starmer was a Shadow Home Office Minister until June, standing down as one of the mass resignations in June, before being brought back into the fold this month.
Secondly, Labour has been split by the Brexit issue – Corbyn and McDonnell, never really pro-EU people who reluctantly backed Remain, have nevertheless been reasonably pro-Freedom of Movement, while simultaneously being willing to contemplate Britain leaving the EU Single Market after Brexit. On the other side of the party, Rachel Reeves has claimed riots may happen in her constituency if immigration is not reduced post-Brexit, while Chuka Umunna has also said the Brexit vote was a vote against freedom of movement.
Starmer, so far, has not been drawn into either of these camps, and – by his very nature – you cannot imagine him being as foolishly inflammatory as Reeves. He holds “conventional pro-EU views” according to John Rentoul in The Independent. All of that can make him a good bridge builder within the Labour Party and, one would hope, towards the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru.
Thirdly, how Brexit is going to play out still remains rather unknown at the time of writing. Statements from Theresa May at Conservative Party Conference seemed to indicate she is piloting her government towards a hard Brexit, but, as I explain in my Brexit Calendar, there are a lot of milestones even between now and when she says she will trigger Article 50 in spring 2017. One of the most significant milestones is the case that may rule that using the Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50 is unconstitutional, meaning Starmer might have to organise Labour’s parliamentary position on how to deal with when to trigger Article 50 or not.
On all of this Starmer can excel. No-one can expect a full and complete set of answers to the Brexit conundrum from Labour in the short term, for no complete vision for Britain’s future relationship with the EU is readily in sight (it may change long term – hence ‘for now’ in the title of this blog entry). Starmer’s task is hence to actually build a proper opposition to the dangerous and rash short term implications of the path towards Brexit, to critique the government’s approach – in a systematic, forensic and legal manner. As a barrister friend of mine said to me, Starmer’s style in parliament is hard for the Tories to handle – he is lawyerly and technical, which is just how short term critique of the Brexit process needs to be. He and the Labour Party will be able to call on a wide network of support of legal expertise, something that no other Labour politician could as easily draw upon. As a person he is “particularly single minded“, a friend from within UK government told me – that character trait could come in handy.
Of course there are some things that we cannot know at the moment. “What do we know about his views or capabilities?” was Carl Gardner’s legitimate comment. I do think we will know that rather soon, although I am willing to give Starmer the benefit of the doubt on that for now. There is also the perplexing issue as to why Corbyn brought someone like Starmer back into the fold, because Starmer has the opportunity to cause problems for Corbyn and to clash with the Labour leader. My barrister friend reasoned it was because Corbyn trusts and rates Starmer, although I am more inclined to go with Dave Keating‘s theory that it is because Corbyn doesn’t care about Brexit he hence does not think he is really giving Starmer a major role (while the rest of us do see it as significant).
So, in short, in terms of his standing, his bridge building ability, and especially due to his forensic and legal approach, Keir Starmer ought to be just the sort of person the Labour Party needs in the Shadow Brexit Minister role. Fingers crossed he has the freedom, the support, and above all the time to make a success of the job!