Now the dust has settled, Mike Buckley looks back on Labour Party Conference 2021 and what it can tell us about the party's position on Brexit. Mike Buckley is Director at CampaignCentral and a journalist with the Byline Times.
Boris Johnson is on borrowed time. He knows it – hence his desperate attempts to blame anyone else for the increasingly evident harms created by his chosen form of Brexit. In the past two weeks he has blamed the media for fuel shortages, swiftly followed by the public themselves. His speech to Conservative Party conference blamed low wages and supply chain shortages on businesses who, he said, were addicted to "uncontrolled immigration."
Business has not taken these criticisms lightly. All ministers care about is "polling and votes" said one executive, adding: "These are transparent tactics. They have retrospectively decided that the reason for all these crises is the need to reboot the economy, and now they need an enemy to blame."
Perhaps more surprisingly, right-wing think tanks have spoken out against Johnson’s claims. Johnson’s speech was "economically illiterate" said the Adam Smith Institute. "The public will soon tire of Boris’s banter if the government does not get a grip of mounting crises: price rises, tax rises, fuel shortages, labour shortages," said Ryan Shorthouse, director of Conservative think tank Bright Blue.
"Britain needs a high wage high productivity economy, but this government has no plan to get there."
Keir Starmer too has gone on the attack. "Britain needs a high wage high productivity economy," he said, "but this government has no plan to get there. Instead, wages are stagnant, bills are rising, and the Conservatives are raising taxes on working families and small businesses."
Starmer’s attack stopped short of mentioning Brexit directly but the implication is clear, and he was speaking into a debate already full of references to Johnson’s attack on business being an attempt to pass the buck for Brexit-created harms.
Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics at King’s College London, for example said that it is not "credible to claim that Brexit - seen as a set of new restrictions on migration - will somehow shock us onto a path of higher productivity [and] real wages."
"Britain has done something genuinely incredible: it’s created a long-term supply shock for its own economy."
Economist Umair Haque wrote that "Brexit has placed so many hurdles in the way — from paperwork to tariffs to red tape to backlogs — that many European businesses have simply decided not to supply Britain at all. That means that Britain has done something genuinely incredible: it’s created a long-term supply shock for its own economy."
Starmer is building on growing willingness within Labour to criticise the Government’s approach to the economy and Brexit itself. Shadow ministers and Starmer himself are now promising to "clean up the Tories’ Brexit mess" and "make Brexit work". Shadow Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry has said that fixing the EU trade relationship would be her priority in office.
At a fringe event at Labour conference Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said that the party’s desire is for an "ambitious, close and lasting" relationship with the EU and that Labour would "go to the EU and ask for some goodwill and flexibility". At the same event, Labour MP Hilary Benn argued that the EU-Ukraine association agreement could provide a template.
"Many shadow ministers and advisers are content to let Brexit unravel in its own time."
This is not to say that Labour is about to adopt an avowedly pro-European position. The party remains concerned about its need to win back former Leave voters as an important part of any viable voter coalition.
Many shadow ministers and advisers are content to let Brexit unravel in its own time. The events of recent weeks - with well publicised fuel, goods and labour shortages all laid at the door of Brexit – could prove them right.
Many observers believe that shortages are only likely to get worse, given Johnson’s refusal to issue even temporary worker visas and the sanctions on trade baked into the Brexit agreements, which will make life more difficult still for Johnson.
Meanwhile tensions will continue to rise over Britain’s refusal to fully implement the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol, angering Ireland, France and the wider EU. Many believe that if Johnson continues to fail to comply sanctions will follow, further hampering trade, raising prices and increasing shortages.
"If Keir Starmer’s party doesn’t define its position Johnson’s Conservatives will do it for them."
But Labour cannot assume that events will do all the work. The public need to know there is an alternative, and better, way to organise our affairs with Europe. One that facilitates trade, minimises the chance of shortages and rebuilds relationships with once close allies.
For Labour to make Brexit a vote-winning issue it needs to be honest with the public about the trade-offs required for closer engagement. Doing so would open opportunities for clear, targeted attacks on Johnson and his Government. It would allow Labour to lay the foundations for an alternative economic model, one rooted in strong economic, diplomatic and security ties with our nearest neighbours.
This is the direction of travel within Labour. There is an awareness that our relationship with Europe will be a key issue at the next election. If nothing else Starmer will be asked how he would handle the renegotiation of the Brexit agreement scheduled to begin in 2024. He will need an answer.
There is also the simple fact that if Starmer’s party doesn’t define its position Johnson’s Conservatives will do it for them – an outcome Labour should avoid at all costs.