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The wind and rain were quite light, but for Boris Johnson the Jersey fishing stand-off was the perfect storm.
From the early morning arrival of the Royal Navy until their evening return to Portsmouth, the PM had been allowed to project himself as a muscular interventionist in a spat that dominated the news agenda throughout polling day.
Of course, the timing was dictated by the French fishermen’s protest, rather than being part of some dastardly plan by Johnson to hijack the headlines as Britons voted in their biggest elections since 2019. It was a gift from Normandy, not a plot hatched in Downing Street, though many Tory MPs were no less delighted.
There will be some who say that the whole row is risky for Johnson as it exposes the problems in his skinny UK-EU trade deal, with British fishermen facing just as much pain as their French counterparts. Only last week, the collapse of bilateral talks with Norway on fishing rights put hundreds of jobs at risk in Humberside.
From Devon to Scotland, the shellfish industry is in real jeopardy too, with many accusing the government of breaking its promises. While the Jersey “cod war” was a one-day wonder of military showmanship that veered from high drama to low farce, the PM can’t fix the deep flaws in his Brexit deal by sending gunboats to Hull, Brixham or Aberdeen. (Or Dublin, for that matter).
But such arguments may be lost on the bulk of the voting public, particularly those in “Red Wall” former Labour areas that just like the sight of “Boris biffing the French”. And the fact is that if anyone escalated the “war”, it was the French government with its inflammatory threat to cut off electricity supplies to the Channel island.
Moreover, Labour was not making any arguments about the wider problems with Johnson’s Brexit deal. Shadow defence secretary John Healey gave his full backing to the deployment of the Navy ships, stressing they would “reassure residents and protect Britain’s broader national interests” after France’s threats.
The bigger issue is that, for all his denials, Keir Starmer does seem to have a “don’t mention the war” approach on Brexit itself. While Johnson uses any opportunity to slip in a reminder of his Vote Leave X-factor (from halting the European Super League to the EU’s inglorious vaccine record), Starmer prefers not to dwell on it.
The Labour leader has tried hard to reassure former Labour voters that the issue is “settled”, not least by voting for the PM’s deal last year. For many critics, the so-called Trade and Co-Operation Agreement is a misnomer given its curbs on trade and its lack of co-operation. Many in business, farming and finance want a much better deal.
Neither Starmer nor his shadow cabinet raise the deal’s downsides, for fear of being accused of wanting to reverse it or unpick it. Even suggesting it should be improved raises the whole issue of a renegotiation that is fraught with political danger. If Starmer says the next Labour government would deliver “a better Brexit”, he risks annoying both Brexit and Remainer voters.
Despite that, there are some in the party who are increasingly frustrated with the silence. The argument is that just as Starmer has taken the gloves off over bits of the pandemic and over sleaze, he should be brave enough to start working out how he can turn the “skinny” deal into a full-fat one that could sustain more jobs and livelihoods. After all, they argue, the next manifesto can’t ignore Europe, can it?
Whatever he decides, the Jersey showdown just reveals once more the bind Starmer is in. The coalition of voters he needs to build looks inherently more unstable than that which Johnson has built.
Labour would have to blame Johnson, not the voters, for any job losses and anaemic growth caused by Brexit (and don’t forget the independent OBR says that hit is greater than even the Covid pandemic). And that’s much, much harder than sending in a gunboat.