Shadow Brexit Minister Starmer 'Theresa May Engages in Doublespeak on Brexit'

On the issue of Brexit, the Labour Party finds itself in an advantageous position as Prime Minister Theresa May's government struggles to find unity. In an interview, Keir Starmer, Brexit minister in the shadow cabinet, speaks of the possibility that Brexit talks might fail as well as his pity for the prime minister.

A Banksy mural in Dover
GERRY PENNY/ EPA/ REX/ Shutterstock

A Banksy mural in Dover

Interview Conducted by


Round five of the Brexit talks in Brussels have just come to an end and the results thus far are sparse, indeed. The negotiators from the EU and the UK have so far been unable to produce much beyond a "constructive atmosphere." The talks are deadlocked on central questions, such as the financial demands the EU is making of London, the future rights of EU citizens in the UK andthe border to Northern Ireland.

Given the current situation, phase two cannot begin in October as planned. The fear of a hard Brexit - the disorderly departure of the UK from the EU - is growing and the consequences of such an eventuality are almost impossible to predict.

In an interview, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit minister for the Labour Party, speaks about the risks of such a development, the questionable role being played by European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker and the chances of new elections in Britain.

About Keir Starmer
  • Getty Images/ Bloomberg
    Keir Starmer, a lawyer born in 1962, is responsible for issues pertaining to Brexit in the shadow cabinet of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. He has repeatedly mentioned his opposition to a hard Brexit.

SPIEGEL: The Brexit negotiations are in deadlock and both sides are increasingly preparing for the UK leaving the European Union without an agreement regulating their future relations when it comes to trade, security and other issues. How likely is such a no-deal scenario?

Starmer: Nobody should be under the illusion that no deal is a viable option. It would be disastrous for both the UK and the EU.

SPIEGEL: Still, there are a lot of countries outside of the EU which are trading with the bloc and seem to be doing just fine.

Starmer: Europe was and will always be our biggest trading partner. Therefore, having no deal doesn't work. And it is not just about trade. No deal, taken to its logical conclusion, means no deal when it comes to fisheries, no deal when it comes to what is going to happen in Northern Ireland, no deal when it comes to arrangements for law enforcement. It cannot be in anybody's interest to have no agreements in all these areas.

SPIEGEL: What would happen in the immediate wake of a hard Brexit?

Starmer: Well, I don't have a crystal ball, but I think the first would be a lack of confidence in our economy. Business is already telling me that they need a year or so to adjust to what is going to change in March 2019. Without a deal, tariffs would immediately kick in and we would need all the physical attributes of a customs border. And that is just the trade aspect. Imagine what would happen if, from one day to the next, we had no aviation agreement or no agreements for dealing with security across Europe.

SPIEGEL: Do you have the impression that the EU is committed to a deal, no matter what?

Starmer: No serious politician from another country has said to me that their preference is no deal. Are they preparing for no deal? Yes, and it makes sense. But there is a vast difference between preparing for an undesirable outcome and openly advocating for it.

SPIEGEL: What do you make of the behavior of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has ridiculed the British government and made jokes about the alleged loss of importance of the English language?

Starmer: It would be helpful if everybody would focus on getting the right outcome. An aggressive stand by the EU will only feed into those who promote the narrative of "better off out."

SPIEGEL: Prime Minister Theresa May was originally in favor of remaining in the European Union. Does she still have the authority to negotiate a reasonable deal?

Starmer: She engages in doublespeak on Brexit because of the deep divisions within her own party. EU countries do not know if what she says is really the shared, supported position of her party and her government. It is impossible to say how long she will survive as prime minister.

SPIEGEL: Did you feel sorry for her when everything went wrong during her final speech at the party conference in Manchester?

Starmer: I think you'd have to be inhuman to not feel sorry for her. The problem was that the speech symbolized what is happening in her own party.

SPIEGEL: Would you agree that since elections last June, Labour is in the best position it could have hoped for? You stand opposed to a dysfunctional government, one which you can torment on a regular basis, without having to prove that you could actually do any better?

Starmer: Firstly, we are undoubtedly more united and more confident since the election. We are a party on the way up. By contrast, the government is on the way down. That is why the government is desperate not to have another general election.

SPIEGEL: But Labour would face similar divisions on Brexit as soon as it took power.

Starmer: I think we are in a far better position. On Brexit, the Conservatives are divided, not only about the tactics but also about the end goal. Some of them deeply and profoundly believe ideologically in a deregulated, low-tax, free-market economy. Others still favor the economic and political model that we operated with in Europe over many decades. The Labour party is united in what we are trying to achieve.

SPIEGEL: Are you sure?

Starmer: Yes. We want a close partnership with the EU based on the benefits of the single market and the customs union. There are differences in the way we hope to achieve that, I don't deny that.

SPIEGEL: In the former Labour heartland of northern England, there are numerous party members who have lost their jobs due to massive structural changes. Many of them blame the EU and foreign workers. On the other hand, numerous young party members grew up in uncertain economic circumstance and see the EU and the freedom of movement as an opportunity. It's difficult to imagine how your party could possibly unite those groups.

Starmer: It's true, we can't simply ignore the evidence that a lot of people are disaffected by the way the current system has worked for them. That's why I took the vote to leave very seriously and never tried to belittle it. Labour needs to answer these concerns. That means changing the way we do politics and economics in this country. On the other hand, and of equal concern, it is important to understand the 48 percent who voted to stay in the EU, of which I am one. There are very many individuals who now feel that they lost and that it therefore doesn't matter what they think. What the Labour party is trying to do is come up with a strategy to unite both parts. Of course, this makes life more difficult, but it is the right thing to do politically.

SPIEGEL: Still, given the existence of the two groups, it would be very difficult for Labour to govern the country.

Starmer: I don't accept the proposition we can't bring the two together. We made offers to both sides in our 2017 manifesto. We want to make the economy fairer for everybody with a new industrial strategy and by investing in different parts of the UK. And we are not following the cynical approach of saying: Young people don't usually vote so we don't have to make any offer to them. But to succeed, we need a progressive future partnership with the EU. It is not easy, but I genuinely think it is possible to do. And I want Labour in power to do it, because the damage that is being done is profound.

SPIEGEL: When do you think Labour will get the opportunity to prove that it can do better?

Starmer: Obviously, we want an election as soon as possible. Realistically, though, minority governments in Britain tend to cling on for longer than you might think. This government will possibly last for most of the five years.

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