As anticipated, the aftermath of last week’s local elections has been dominated by deepening controversy over the party leader’s disregard for Covid rules; the consequent police investigation; and speculation about his political future. Why did he not come clean immediately? Who, if he were forced to go, might replace him?
The surprise is that the party leader in question is not Boris Johnson but Sir Keir Starmer. It is not Tory backbenchers but Labour MPs that spent the weekend wondering whether the boss might be forced to resign. It was not “Partygate” (all those Number 10 booze-ups) but “Beergate” (an Indian meal at Labour’s constituency HQ in the City of Durham on the evening of 30 April 2021) that loomed over the audit of last Thursday’s results. As Chuck Berry sang: it goes to show you never can tell.
Understandably, Starmer feels aggrieved that a single alleged breach – now the subject of an inquiry by Durham constabulary – should be considered morally equivalent to the dozen Downing Street parties that the Met has been investigating since January. At the time of the now-famous curry, England was subject to “Step Two” restrictions on the roadmap out of lockdown: rules which allowed staff to meet indoors if doing so was “reasonably necessary for work”, but decreed that “there should not be any sharing of food and drink by staff who do not share a household.” Employers were further instructed to “[m]inimise self-serving options for food and drink”.
As Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, put it yesterday to Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “It is frankly absurd of the Tories to claim that this in any way equates to a prime minister who was under investigation by the police for 12 separate gatherings which included karaoke parties, bring your own bottle parties, pub quizzes, suitcases full of wine being smuggled through the backdoor.”
Well, indeed. But – in her very defence of Starmer – Nandy revealed why he is disproportionately vulnerable to such charges. The Labour leader is, as she said, “Mr Rules. He does not break the rules. He was the Director of Public Prosecutions, not somebody who goes around tearing up rules when it suits him in stark contrast to the prime minister, I have to say.” Starmer had, she added, self-isolated no fewer than six times during the pandemic.
But it is precisely because integrity, probity and adherence to law and regulation are so fundamental to the Starmer brand that his party’s decent, if uninspiring performance in the local elections – net gains of 108 seats, compared to the Tories’ net loss of of 487 – was overshadowed by a year-old delivery of biryanis, tikka masalas, bhunas, rice and naan bread.
When the Sun first published a picture of Sir Keir at the Durham party office, beer in hand, in May 2021, Labour dismissed the story as “pathetic”. More recently, the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday have pursued “Beergate” with absolute focus and ferocity. The Mail even stooped to printing a photo of Starmer eating – neglecting to mention that the picture must have been taken before 11 November 2019 when Frank Dobson (conveniently cropped out) died.
Yesterday, the Mail on Sunday published an internal party memo which showed that Angela Rayner, Starmer’s deputy, had been top of the guest list at the Durham event (Labour initially denied she had been present at all). The meal was definitely pre-planned – “dinner in Miners Hall with [constituency MP] Mary Foy” – contrary to Starmer’s insinuation that it was merely an impromptu way of feeding hungry activists at the end of a busy day.
According to an unnamed source quoted in yesterday’s Sunday Times, some of those present, including Foy and her team, were simply socialising: “They were just there drinking. This made some people feel uncomfortable because they knew there was a risk we could be accused of breaking the rules. Mary Foy and her staff were not working and I have not got a problem telling that to the police. They were just getting pissed. They were just there for a jolly. It’s not something that I am prepared to defend.”
This is hard to square with Starmer’s account of the evening. “We were very busy. We were working in the office,” he said on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme on 16 January. “We stopped for something to eat and then we carried on working” (my italics).
But did they? According to the operational note, the meal was not due to be followed by further campaign planning activity. After a reminder to “arrange takeaway”, the document says simply: “End of visit.”
All of this would be absurdly petty, were it not for the fact that Starmer himself has been so uncompromising in his approach to the alleged Covid breaches in Downing Street. On 31 January, he tweeted: “Honesty and decency matter. After months of denials the Prime Minister is now under criminal investigations for breaking his own lockdown laws. He needs to do the decent thing and resign.”
Since the Labour leader is now under police investigation too, he has laid himself open to the charge of hypocrisy by failing to resign already. And if you think that’s harsh, consider this passage in his conference speech, delivered in Brighton last September:
“… the one thing about Boris Johnson that offends everything I stand for is his assumption that the rules don’t apply to him. When Dominic Cummings took a trip to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, Boris Johnson turned a blind eye. When Matt Hancock breached his own lockdown rules, Boris Johnson declared the matter closed. When I got pinged, I isolated. When Boris Johnson got pinged, he tried to ignore it. That’s not how I do business. When I was the Chief Prosecutor and MPs fell short of the highest standards on their expenses, I prosecuted those who had broken the law. Politics has to be clean; wrongdoing has to be punished. There are times in this parliament when I feel as if I have my old job back… On behalf of a public that cares about cleaning up politics, I put this government on notice.”
To declare occupancy of the moral high ground quite so unequivocally is, to say the least, a gamble. It means that you cannot put a foot wrong yourself. It means that every “i” must be dotted, every “t” crossed. As Starmer implied, we all expect Johnson to break the rules. Indeed, it used to be part of his charm to some voters. By declaring himself morally superior, the Labour leader was inviting every Savonarola, every inquisitor, every political puritan to examine his own conduct with ruthless attention to detail. And, unfortunately for him, they have.
He has also done the government – as it prepares for tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech – an immense favour. The saga of the Downing Street parties has been intermittently dangerous for the prime minister because it suggested that a culture rooted in his own disdain for the rules had contaminated an entire regime. Many people enjoyed the revels – but it was because of Johnson, and Johnson alone, that they felt free to do so.
The PM may yet be brought down by Partygate: we have not yet seen Sue Gray’s full report, or, crucially, the 300-plus photographs which she has been given. As Matt Hancock knows to his cost, it’s the image that gets you.
But there is no denying that Johnson has caught not one but two breaks in the past month. On 12 April, his principal rival for the Tory leadership, Rishi Sunak – whose own downfall I explore in this week’s Slow Newscast – was given a fixed penalty notice for attending Johnson’s birthday party in the Cabinet room on 19 June 2020 (as, of course, was the PM and his wife, Carrie). And now the leader of the Opposition has also been dragged into the story. As one of the PM’s allies puts it: “Covid rule-busting is no longer a story exclusively about Boris. That’s a big deal. It muddies a previously clear picture.”
Starmer is not a thrilling or energising politician. Last week’s elections marked reasonable progress rather than the boarding of a bullet train to Number 10. But it is easy to forget that he has already been a consequential Labour leader.
When he assumed the role in the first weeks of the pandemic, the party was still reeling from its worst defeat since 1935. The stain of antisemitism had wrought terrible damage to its anti-racist credentials. It looked and sounded like a student protest movement rather than a government-in-waiting.
In a little more than two years, Starmer has restored a degree of credibility to his ruined party; kept it ahead in the polls, if not commandingly so; and, most impressively, been unequivocal in his approach to antisemitism, suspending Jeremy Corbyn from the party he had led only six months previously for claiming that the problem had been “dramatically overstated”.
The fact that Labour took control last week of Barnet – which has a large Jewish community – is a testament to that achievement. Whoever Labour’s next prime minister may be, he or she will owe a big debt to Starmer.
What should he do now, this week? By a process of elimination, the answer is clear. If he is given a fixed penalty notice, he will have no choice but to resign. The Johnson strategy – which is to shrug, say sorry and carry on – is not open to a party leader who has made so much of his own moral rectitude and demanded the same of others.
Therefore: Starmer may as well make the most of his predicament, by leaning into it and promising in advance that he will quit if he is fined. Imagine the power of such a statement: a preemptive declaration of principle and of a readiness to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.
What better way of declaring Labour unambiguously different to the Tories when it comes to cleaning up democracy? What better way of energising your own movement and, more importantly, of demonstrating to voters that their deepest conviction – that all politicians are the same – might just be unfounded?
Yes, this would be a high-stakes response to the weekend’s intrigue and speculation. It would leave him with absolutely no wriggle room, turbocharge the manoeuvrings of his potential successors (Nandy, Wes Streeting, Rachel Reeves, Yvette Cooper) and – potentially – plunge his party into a lengthy leadership contest when it should be focusing on the cost-of-living crisis, energy prices and the vacuity of “levelling up”.
But – really – so what? By any honest assessment, Starmer is not yet on course to become prime minister. If he makes such a pledge, and is cleared – a display of courage, character and daring – he might just change the way the public sees him.
And if he isn’t cleared and has to go, he will have done something straightforwardly honest and shown himself to be that rarest of creatures: a politician who plays it straight. He will set a standard to which all others will have to aspire, and leave Johnson and his fellow Tories looking, more clearly than ever, like a gang of moral zombies. What better legacy for Mr Rules?