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Starmer must wait before breaking the Brexit omertà

Alastair Campbell advised Tony Blair through consecutive landslide election victories in the UK. He believes the Labour party should be pointing out the failure of Brexit directly, not just elliptically.

Matthew Parris of The Times is the columnist I admire over all others. He urges the Liberal Democrats to stop hedging and to run as the anti-Brexit party.

Ford and other car manufacturers bring precious jobs to some of the least favoured regions of the country. Once so terse on the subject of Brexit, some now call on the government to revise the terms of it.

It would be risky, not to say impudent, to describe these august people as wrong. These august people are wrong. A time will come when politicians can tell voters that Brexit was a turkey of an idea, that it makes Britain poorer than it needs to be, that it doesn’t even work as an immigration-cutting retreat from the world. That time isn’t far off. But it isn’t now. Not quite. And timing is all.

Surveys show that most voters — including, almost by definition, some who voted Leave — regret Brexit. But there is a difference between knowing that you have erred and being told that you have erred. The first experience isn’t so difficult to handle. The second can feel like a violation. Perhaps, towards the end of this decade, voters won’t mind hearing from politicians that Brexit was a mistake. Until then, they must be left to privately suspect it. Vocalise the thought too early, and people are liable to shrink into a defensive crouch, never to come out.

The political class won’t have several opportunities to get this right. One mistimed gesture can become a reference point and recruiting cry for the other side. “Remember the great Brexit sabotage of 2023?”

A few years can make all the difference. In 1974, Prime Minister Ted Heath sought a mandate to reduce trade union power. Voters denied him. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher issued more or less the same request and won. What was the difference? Her Hegelian, world-historical greatness? Perhaps, if you believe in such things. But also the build-up of real-world evidence — strike after strike, inflationary pay round after inflationary pay round — that something had to change. A problem that was chronic at the start of the decade was acute at the end. Things had to get worse to get better.

Politicians will have to give up the eerie omertà about Brexit. But to do so now would be Heath-ish. Politics is to a large extent the art of timing. Charles de Gaulle did not break the hearts of the pieds-noirs at the outset. He waited for the accretion of evidence that a French Algeria was untenable. The costs were allowed to mount.

So, if not now, when? When should Labour stop walking on eggshells around the central issue of British politics? With the proviso that there can be no exactitude, here is my guess: not the coming general election but, assuming a normal-length parliament, the one after that. It should feel like a bow to the inevitable: almost an afterthought, in fact.

The wait isn’t costless, I know. Britain forgoes exports every day. Politicians of provably bad judgment escape scrutiny. In a fair world, Rishi Sunak wouldn’t get to pose as a hard-headed, what-works kind of man. Labour would frame him as the first prime minister who is a doctrinal believer in Brexit. (Theresa May and Liz Truss voted Remain. Boris Johnson was a late and perhaps opportunistic convert.)

Sir Keir Starmer would hound him from here to Santa Monica. Which EU laws tie Britain down, prime minister? Do you agree with the fiscal watchdog about Brexit’s costs? How many hospitals has it set the nation back? Why can’t all of us have Northern Ireland’s “unbelievably special” access to the EU, prime minister? Sunak projects the over-enthusiasm of a children’s TV presenter. These questions might draw out the underlying tetchiness.

But — it is surreal that this still needs saying — Starmer is good at politics. He hasn’t got to the brink of the premiership by mistiming things. He senses that much of Britain would interpret an attack on Brexit as an attack on itself. An electorate that knows it took a wrong turn in 2016 is still working up the stomach to be told so.

That day is coming. Perhaps it will be safe for a Labour intellectual to write a book called something like Guilty Men and Women. It will tell of a nation pushed into its biggest unforced error since Suez by inept politicians, detail-averse journalists, credulous, out-of-their-depth hedgies and the eternal undergraduates of the libertarian think-tank world. Publication date? No earlier than 2028.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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