What is the case for Boris Johnson’s resignation? First, that he has been fined for hypocritically breaking the laws that millions of us dutifully obeyed. Second, that he deliberately misled parliament by insisting “there were no parties” when he was attending the merriment himself.
Third, that a lying lawbreaker cannot lead Britain at a time of crisis. He cannot muster the cross-party goodwill, nor even mobilise a cabinet whose key members are not preparing to replace him.
What is the case for Keir Starmer’s resignation? There is none. He has pledged to resign if he is fined for breaking lockdown rules in Durham but he cannot be fined. First, because all the evidence shows that the takeaway curry, eaten towards the end of a working day, was a scheduled part of his official business. Second, because Durham police operate a policy of no retrospective fines.
Yet for days the British media – with the right-wing tabloids leading the pack, but public broadcasters enthusiastically baying behind them – has persecuted Starmer alone. Even after he pledged to resign if found guilty, he was criticised for “piling pressure on police” by newspapers who had done nothing other than pressure the police themselves.
Starmer’s handling of the crisis, as it grew, was poor. His team is full of people talented at polling, policy and putting the boot into the Labour left. Since its strategic mindset is focused on winning back Red Wall voters, and those voters read the right-wing tabloids, its default attitude towards the Mail, Sun and Express is emollience.
Nobody seems to have taken seriously the idea that the Tory social media machine, combined with right-wing radio talk shows, could spin the flimsy evidence of beergate into a serious problem for Labour, bouncing the police into reopening the case with “new evidence”. Once that happened, Starmer himself seemed paralysed in the headlights, struggling to recall events rather than offering a detailed, evidenced brief.
These are the operational pitfalls of politics. Starmer stumbled into one because there are too few street fighters around him with a sixth sense for danger.
I have no doubt that he will be cleared and that, once that happens, he will emerge morally strengthened. It felt exactly right that he made the pledge to resign if found guilty. Voters, in so far as they notice politics at all, saw a decent man, perplexed by the maelstrom of criticism and actually doing the right thing.
But the results of the 5 May local elections show Starmer needs, once again, to refresh both his political offer and his operation. Days that could have been spent celebrating Labour’s victories in Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster had to be wasted on confused rebuttals.
The challenge facing Starmer has been well outlined by Peter Mandelson. The default position of the Labour front bench, he wrote, is to seek a defensive path to victory: “let tumbling trade, inflation and the cost-of-living crisis take their toll on Tory fortunes, and don’t risk sparking controversy on difficult policy questions that would focus attention on internal party divisions.”
Mandelson, by contrast, wants Starmer to take on the Tories with a comprehensive and radical alternative vision for Britain. What he means by that will probably be different to what I would like to see, but I think he is right on the political principle.
Partygate was a gift to Labour – a free hit that, almost overnight, tanked Johnson’s personal ratings. Added to the Spring Statement fiasco, which tanked Rishi Sunak’s ratings, it threw the Tories into a leadership crisis. The PM is a dead man walking, while Sunak – who would have been odds-on to replace him – looks politically floored, if not knocked out.
But the mood in Britain’s ex-industrial and suburban towns, while sullen and resentful towards the Tories, is not decisively positive towards Labour. Voters can see the link between elite insouciance and the government’s failure to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, but they can’t see what Labour would do differently.
At the same time, even at the moments when Johnson is too weak to pull the trigger in the culture war, the culture war abides in these communities. In my conversations with Labour-curious Tory voters, the one thing that’s stuck in their mind is politicians’ inability to answer clearly questions such as “what is a woman”?
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Labour is in a state of cognitive dissonance over the growth and solidification of the Green vote – which will be a national problem come election time – and the breakthrough of Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire Party in Tower Hamlets.
While Rahman’s appeal is essentially to a faction within local Muslim community politics, his combination of left rhetoric with social conservatism is replicable elsewhere – as those who campaigned in the Batley and Spen by-election know all too well.
[See also: Why the Green surge is more than a protest vote]
The task of the Labour leader is not to bask in the successes of 5 May but to construct a winning coalition for an election that could come in early 2023 or even sooner.
That means coming up now, not later, with the big policy offers that Labour will fight the election on. Policies take time to filter through to the electorate. It takes repetition, sloganeering and serious advertising expenditure before you start hearing your own ideas repeated back to you in Wetherspoons, at the school gate or by an Uber driver.
It also means squaring the Green Party. An informal pact with the Lib Dems barely matters if the Greens can take 5-8 per cent of the vote from Labour in pointless face-offs. Starmer needs an overt agreement with the Greens, allowing Labour-Green candidates in a small number of seats in return for a mass stand-down.
Finally, Starmer has to re-engage with the party’s left. He should ignore that part of the left commentariat, such as the Guardian’s Owen Jones, who believe him to be “dishonest, unprincipled, uncharismatic and unelectable”. You can’t form a coalition with people celebrating your imminent demise.
But there are tens of thousands of left members, activists and trade unionists who want Starmer to live up to the pledges he made in the leadership race and who could be assuaged with some clear, redistributive policy offers – for example mirroring Sadiq Khan’s call for rent controls, or a positive offer on wages and workplace rights. Policy, in the end, is the raw material for political coalitions. But policies, narrative and vision are in short supply.
Starmer’s leadership is, once again, at a turning point. He used victory in Batley and Spen last July to reinvigorate his leadership. When he is exonerated by Durham police he should use the moral force generated by that moment to set out his stall for government. The Queen’s Speech shows that the Tories are already in pre-election mode. That’s where Labour needs to be from here on in.
Hear from the UK’s leading politicians on the most pressing policy questions facing the UK at NS Politics Live, in London. Speakers include Sir Keir Starmer, Ben Wallace, Lisa Nandy, Sajid Javid, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Jeremy Hunt, Layla Moran and Andrew Marr. Find out more about the New Statesman’s flagship event on the 28 June here.