Boris Johnson repeats false claim about Keir Starmer voting 48 times to ‘take us back’ into the EU

6 July 2022
What was claimed

Keir Starmer voted 48 times to overturn the will of the British people and take us back into the European Union.

Our verdict

This isn’t correct. The figure appears to be based on how Mr Starmer voted in 48 votes related to Brexit. But some of these votes were not about whether Britain should be part of the EU, and all but three took place before Britain left the EU. Mr Starmer has often opposed the Government in Brexit votes, but has also voted a number of times in support of Brexit.

He [Keir Starmer] talks about integrity—he voted 48 times to overturn the will of the British people and take us back into the European Union.

Boris Johnson claimed that Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer “voted 48 times to… take us back into the European Union” during Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. 

As we wrote in February after Boris Johnson made the same claim three times, this is not true. The claim appears to be based on an analysis of Mr Starmer’s participation in 48 votes in the House of Commons between 2017 and 2020. But while these votes were all related in some way to Brexit and saw Mr Starmer repeatedly oppose the Government, only a handful were directly about whether Britain should be part of the EU, and all but three took place before the UK even left the EU.  Mr Starmer has also voted a number of times in support of Brexit, and on Monday 4 July, unveiling his “Make Brexit Work” plan, he pledged that “with Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU”.

Full Fact wrote to 10 Downing Street in February to ask the Prime Minister to correct the record, but did not receive a response. 

Mr Johnson’s claim is somewhat similar to statements recently shared by the Conservative Party on social media, that Mr Starmer “voted to block Brexit 48 times”. However crucially the Conservative Party stopped short of explicitly claiming that Mr Starmer voted to “take us back” into the EU. 

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What is Mr Johnson’s claim based on? 

We have contacted 10 Downing Street to ask about Mr Johnson’s most recent repeat of this claim, but have not had a response at the time of writing. 

When we asked 10 Downing Street back in February what Mr Johnson’s claim was based on, it told us at the time this was a “political question” and referred us to Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ). CCHQ sent us a list of 48 votes and said: “Through directly voting against, voting in favour of wrecking amendments and voting against eleven of the Statutory Instruments required for delivering Brexit, Keir Starmer voted to hinder our exit from the EU at least 48 times.” 

The 48 figure has appeared in the media at least twice. It was the subject of an article by Camilla Tominey published by the Telegraph on 8 November 2021, and a similar article published the following day by the Express quoted Ms Tominey and appears to echo what she wrote. However both articles described the 48 votes as attempts to “block” various Brexit plans, rather than to take the UK back into the EU.When we asked Ms Tominey about her analysis at the time, she declined to reveal the source but provided Full Fact with a list of the 48 votes mentioned in her article. This list appears to be the same as the list sent to us by CCHQ.

What were the votes? 

The 48 votes listed in the analysis shared by both CCHQ and the Telegraph covered a wide range of issues relating to Brexit, and took place between 2017 and 2020. The list did not appear to have been published prior to our February fact check, but you can read it in full here. As we wrote in February, the votes appear to fall into three broad categories:

  • At least six were directly to do with whether or not Brexit should happen. Some of the 48 votes could be described as a choice between whether or not the UK would leave the EU, though as they took place while the UK was still in the EU, they were not about returning to the bloc—and some might argue they were as much about how the UK should leave the EU as whether it should.

    Altogether, Mr Starmer directly voted six times against versions of the Brexit deal. In 2019, he voted against the deal put forward by then-Prime Minister Theresa May in what were known as the Meaningful Votes—once in January and twice in March 2019. (Mr Johnson also voted against it in January, but in favour of it twice in March.)

    Once Mr Johnson had become Prime Minister, Mr Starmer then voted against his EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill at its second reading on 22 October 2019. And shortly after the 2019 general election, Mr Starmer voted twice against Mr Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill, at its second and third reading, though the Bill passed due to the Conservatives’ majority.

  • Most of the votes were about how withdrawal would work and what the UK’s future relationship with the EU would look like, not directly about whether the UK should be in the EU. To some, Mr Starmer’s votes on these questions could be seen as hindering the process of exiting the EU, but it would be inaccurate to say they amounted to voting to take the UK back into the EU.  

    For example, in March and April 2019 Mr Starmer voted for a “confirmatory public vote” on Brexit during the Indicative Votes process. This was narrowly defeated, but would have required a public vote on any Brexit deal before Parliament could ratify it. 

    He also voted for other procedural amendments such as the Cooper-Letwin Bill, which was designed to ensure that ministers could not allow the UK to leave the EU in a “no deal scenario” without parliamentary approval. This category also includes Mr Starmer’s votes on amendments to the withdrawal bill—some on quite specific questions. For example, Mr Starmer voted in favour of the UK seeking full membership of the Erasmus student exchange scheme, voted for Europeans who had lived in the UK for more than five years to be granted automatic citizenship and supported a move for UK ministers to “seek an agreement with Brussels to allow unaccompanied child refugees to join their relatives”.

    While many of these votes were on amendments to the withdrawal bill, none were directly on whether or not to return the UK to the EU. 

  • At least eight votes were not on the main withdrawal bill or the parliamentary process around it, but on other pieces of Brexit-related legislation. This includes votes on the Customs Bill, the Trade Bill and the Agriculture Bill.The purpose of the Customs Bill (officially The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill) was to allow the government to create a functioning customs, VAT and excise regime for the UK following Brexit.

    The Trade Bill, in combination with the Customs Bill, was designed so the UK could continue its existing trade policy as far as possible immediately after Brexit.

    The purpose of the Agriculture Bill was to design a replacement for the EU’s agriculture policy, which the UK left as part of Brexit. 

    The topics covered by these bills were closely linked to some of the key issues surrounding Brexit, so it may be possible to argue, as CCHQ has, that they were votes that would “hinder our exit”. However, they were not votes on whether to continue with or subsequently resume membership of the EU, as Mr Johnson has suggested. 

    It’s also worth noting that on two of the votes we’ve included in this category (the second and third readings of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill) Mr Starmer is not listed as having voted at all. 

What does Keir Starmer’s overall voting record on Brexit show?

As the list of 48 votes shows, the Labour leader has repeatedly opposed the Government on its specific Brexit proposals. But we could find no evidence to support Mr Johnson’s repeated claim that Mr Starmer voted “to take us back into the European Union” 48 times, or even that there were 48 opportunities to vote on such a question. 

The list also misses a number of occasions on which Mr Starmer voted in support of Brexit. For example, Mr Starmer voted in favour of triggering Article 50 (the legal mechanism which had to be triggered by the government ahead of our departure from the EU) twice, at both its second and third reading in the House of Commons in February 2017. 

He also voted alongside the vast majority of the vast majority of Labour and Conservative MPs to approve Mr Johnson’s trade bill ahead of the end of the UK’s post-Brexit transition period in December 2020. 

A spokesperson for UK in a Changing Europe, an independent and politically impartial research organisation which examines the relationship between the UK and the EU, told Full Fact in February: “On no reading of parliamentary proceedings around Brexit can it be said that Keir Starmer voted to take the UK back into the EU 48 times. 

“He voted both to trigger Article 50 in February 2017 to start the Brexit process, and for the final Trade and Cooperation Agreement.  

“At various points he did oppose specific deals on offer—but he was joined in the opposition lobby twice on the so-called meaningful votes proposed by the May government by Boris Johnson. On other occasions he voted to try to stop the UK leaving the EU without a deal, but that is not the same as voting to stop Brexit.”

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After we published this fact check, we contacted Boris Johnson to request a correction regarding this claim.

He did not respond.

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