Sophy Ridge on Sunday Interview with Keir Starmer Shadow Brexit Secretary


SOPHY RIDGE: Two weeks ago Labour picked a side in the Brexit debate and announced that they would officially back a second referendum but since then, it’s fair to say, not much has actually been done to bring a second referendum about so how does Labour plan to shape Brexit in the critical weeks ahead? Well we’re joined now by Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, thank you very much for being in the studio.

KEIR STARMER: Thanks for having me.

SR: Well we’ve got loads to get through on Brexit, as always, but it feels like we should start on a different story, Shamima Begum. You are a former Director of Public Prosecutions yourself so I’m interested to know your views on whether or not the child of Shamima Begum, that three week old who died in a Syrian refugee camp, has been failed somehow by the government?

KEIR STARMER: Well I think the decision by the Home Secretary was the wrong decision and I think it was a rushed decision. I think it left out of the count the interests of the newly born child who has tragically died. I think the Home Secretary should also have really looked at what powers were available to him to deal with the case as it came back. Our Terrorism Acts are very wide ranging now so if you commit an offence in another country you can be prosecuted back here in the United Kingdom and I’ve done many of those cases. Alternatively, if there is not enough evidence, if she came back and there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, you could also have a prevention order which is where you can’t prosecute but you think measures are necessary so …

SR: Because other people have escaped prosecution haven’t they, who have gone to Syria and come back? It’s been difficult to prosecute them.

KEIR STARMER: Well they are assessed when they come back, Security and Intelligence forces can do that and they do do that and they are very good at it. If there are offences, the mere fact that it was abroad makes no difference, you can be prosecuted here but as I say, if on analysis it was found there wasn’t enough evidence, the Home Secretary could then have said well what about a prevention order which limits what an individual can do back in this country so actually had the interests of the child been taken properly into account I think that we would find this was a wrong decision and a rushed decision by the Home Secretary.

SR: Another former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord McDonald, has spoken to the Observer this morning. Have a look at something that he said about that decision: “Mr Javid’s behaviour is a recipe for refugee chaos and moral cowardice of the worst sort.” Is he right?

KEIR STARMER: Well he’s attended to cases as I did, he knows exactly what can be done back here and I think what he says is right. I think actually the Home Secretary needs to come to Parliament tomorrow and make a statement on this and face questions, I think that’s the right thing to do in the circumstances as they now are because I think there is a growing feeling that this decision wasn’t properly made and the tragic consequences are now that a new born child has died.

SR: Okay, let’s move on to your official favourite subject, Brexit. Now of course we mentioned in the introduction to this interview that you are now officially supporting the idea of a second Brexit vote so are you putting down an amendment for second referendum?

KEIR STARMER: Well the position that Jeremy Corbyn outlined the week before last is that we will either table or support an amendment in favour of a public vote. The timing of that is really important. This Tuesday is obviously the opportunity we get to vote again on the deal and I think there’s a growing feeling that this Tuesday should be pretty much a straight up/down vote on that deal because what we’ve seen is that the deal itself – 585 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement, 26 pages of a political declaration, 610 pages – that was signed off on 25th November last year by the EU 27 and by the UK. It was then voted on eight weeks ago on the 15th January as you know and went down by 230 votes. Not one word of that has ever been changed and so what we’re going to get on Tuesday it seems, unless something dramatic happens, is the extraordinary thing where the Prime Minister will bring exactly the same deal, exactly the same, not a word different, and put it before Parliament eight weeks after she got so badly…

SR: But you are still hoping the EU will give some more assurances though aren’t you?

KEIR STARMER: Well they are hoping for that but they’ve been for weeks and weeks and weeks, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, saying we want changes to the backstop but getting absolutely nowhere and one of the things I’ve tried to raise in the House of Commons over and over again is the Prime Minister is raising expectations that she will not fulfil. Now, I don't know whether something dramatic will happen in the next 24 hours but unless it does, exactly the same deal, exactly the same deal is going to be put before Parliament. Now on both sides of the House, there is going to be a growing frustration about that because that is eight weeks of failure to come back and present exactly what has been rejected and so on Tuesday that has got to be exposed, we cannot go on like that. Then obviously on Wednesday and on Thursday, if the deal goes down, we’ve got the opportunity to deal with this issue of no deal and then to go on and deal with the extension.

SR: I can’t help thinking you are talking about the growing frustration of MPs, that there will be a growing frustration of Labour Party members that there is no amendment being tabled on a second referendum. I can just show you what John McDonnell said ten days ago, he said: “When the meaningful vote comes back, that’s the time when we’ll have to put the amendment up.” So why aren’t you putting one up?

KEIR STARMER: Well we have made decisions about what is going to happen on Tuesday, there was an expectation that the deal would be different. I think across Parliament, now people know the deal is the same, there is a strong sense that there should be an up/down vote on the deal. Now that’s not just the Labour position, back on the 15th January when first went through this exercise there were lots of amendments down and in the end across the House everybody pretty well pulled their amendments and said we need to know the size of the defeat if there is a defeat and I think we are back at that moment on Tuesday. It doesn’t mean that a public vote has gone, it doesn’t mean we won’t come to it but it means that we do it … I mean Tuesday is about exposing the weakness of the Prime Minister and then …

SR: So when are you going to do it then?

KEIR STARMER: Well we have to work with others across … As you know as well as I do, if there is to be a winning amendment on anything, it normally comes from the back bench rather than the front bench and that’s the …

SR: So you might not put an amendment down at all then?

KEIR STARMER: Well we will be putting down amendments, there will be amendments probably on Tuesday but as I say, the feeling about Tuesday is that that should expose the weakness of the Prime Minister. We then go on the next day to deal with no deal, so if the Prime Minister’s deal goes down Parliament will then vote on whether there should be no deal. If Parliament says we should say no to no deal – and I’m sure it will – we go on Thursday to deal with should there be an extension. Then the week after that there will have to be further votes on the Section 13 procedure so there are going to be plenty of opportunities for amendments but I do come back to this central point about Tuesday because this isn’t just an opposition thing. I think if you look across the House, the frustration, I think the disbelief that the Prime Minister is literally going to put the same deal back eight weeks later and say, well you didn’t vote for it last time, vote for it now.

SR: I can’t help thinking that a cynic would look at what is happening and say Labour is just dangling the prospect of a second referendum to satisfy its membership with no intention of actually doing what’s needed to make it happen.

KEIR STARMER: Sophy, we have been absolutely clear that we are supporting a public vote, a lock if you like on the Prime Minister’s deal. We have to work across the House, everybody has to assess when it’s the right time to put amendments and to vote on them and in the end we have to work with our backbenchers. Pretty well everything we’ve won or achieved in the last two years has been where a backbencher has put down an amendment and then sufficient MPs have got behind it and that’s what needs to happen.

SR: Now one of the crucial votes that we’re expecting this week is on a potential delay. We know how Labour is going to vote on Theresa May’s deal, we know how you are going to vote on no deal so when it comes to a delay on Brexit, how long is acceptable?

KEIR STARMER: Well the first thing I need to say about this is this is not a policy of choice. Nobody has been championing an extension, this is now necessary because of the position we find ourselves in. In my discussions in Brussels it seems clear that a delay or an extension of about three months is probably doable, beyond that it becomes much more difficult so we need to look at that sort of period in the first instance but the most important thing I think is what are we going to use this period for? What we cannot have, we just cannot have, is the Prime Minister at the end of this week saying ‘Ah, now we see it is all about the backstop, that’s the problem. I’m going to carry on and have further discussions and negotiations about the backstop with our EU partners.’ We’ve got to stop that and say right, if there is to be an extension, what are we going to use that period for?

SR: One of the ideas that is being seriously discussed is this sort of Norway style agreement. Jeremy Corbyn we know met with a group of MPs who are putting that agreement forward and it includes some Conservatives, unusually for the Labour leader. What happened in that meeting and is this something that Labour is seriously considering?

KEIR STARMER: Look, across the House of Commons there are all sorts of proposals about finding a way through, breaking the impasse and the so-called Norway Model, Common Market 2, is one of those and I think everybody has looked into all the propositions and …

SR: So you are looking seriously at backing it?

KEIR STARMER: We have got to break the impasse, we have got a deal that isn’t getting through and we can’t just keep running down the clock and this is the point for the Prime Minister – sooner or later Parliament is going to have to decide what happens next. Now we have been saying this should be a close economic relationship with a customs union and single market alignment, we are also saying this should be a public vote. So it’s clear where we are but of course we’ve got to talk to people across the House because we’ve got to find a majority so that we can actually move forward, otherwise the extension – however long it is – is not going to be capable of actually resolving this and as you know, people across the country are saying you’ve got to break the impasse.

SR: In the spirit of trying to provide clarity, you were talking there about Norway, some of the different deals that could happen if the UK stays in and you are also talking about the idea of a second public vote where presumably your name would be on the ballot paper so just to be absolutely clear about Labour’s position, do you want to leave or not?

KEIR STARMER: Well we campaigned to remain but when the result came out we said we accept the result and that …

SR: So you want to stay in?

KEIR STARMER: In the 27 (sic) manifesto we said we would trigger Article 50 and we voted to trigger Article 50 in good faith at the beginning of the two year period and said to the Prime Minister, go off and negotiate. At the very beginning we said these are the conditions when you come back, we are not going to accept anything you come back with, these are the conditions for accepting your deal. We’ve now got to the end of the exercise and we are staring at the same deal with the same red lines which we reject or no deal, and it’s in those circumstances that the Labour party said against that backdrop there ought to be a public vote and …

SR: Do you want to stay in or not?

KEIR STARMER: Well at the moment we have taken a decision to leave, we’ve got to where we are. If there’s a public vote that would operate as a lock, if you like, on any deal that Theresa May gets through. If that is the position then in my view the default ought to be remain, if we are in that situation as I said the last time I was across this table with you, I would personally vote remain but this has to be seen in its context because the whole process is a two year process during which the Prime Minister should have negotiated a deal. She hasn’t got a deal that is going to be acceptable to Parliament and so we now have to assess the position that we’re actually in and that’s why we are now back in the public mode.

SR: A little later on the show we have been looking at some of the abuse MPs of both genders but specifically women have suffered in this week of International Women’s Day and we spoke to 30 female MPs of which more than half said that they had suffered death threats. Now there was a very open interview by Jess Philips, your colleague, in the Times yesterday and I just want to ask your opinion on one thing that she said in that interview, she said this: “The left is misogynist, Marxism has always had a problem with women because class is everything.” Do you think she’s right?

KEIR STARMER: Well that’s a very broad statement from Jess who is always worth listening to on these issues. It is certainly a fact that women get far more abuse than men whether that’s online or directly and the increase in death threats is really worrying, this has happened across Parliament and particularly in recent months. I know personally a number of MPs, women MPs, who have had death threats and the impact it has on them is profound and I think this descent into abuse and threats is something we absolutely need to tackle.

SR: In the same interview she also said she would give Labour one more roll of the dice but it doesn’t own me so I wondered, do you feel like that or are you more of the Emily Thornberry school that you would rather die than leave the Labour party?

KEIR STARMER: Well look, I’m not leaving the Labour party, I am staying in the Labour party because I am determined that we will deal with the problems that we have got at the moment and do what we’re here for which is to have progressive change for the future. I’m staying, I want everybody to stay and to pull together on this but it’s a low moment, it is a very low moment when fellow MPs leave and members leave and we need to confront that, we need to listen and reflect on why that has happened so that’s the challenge for the Labour party just at the moment.

SR: Okay, Sir Keir Starmer, thank you.

KEIR STARMER: Thank you.