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Keir Starmer’s missed opportunity

The Labour leader failed to explain to a sceptical public how he did not break lockdown rules.

By Harry Lambert

Keir Starmer has tried to head off accusations that he broke lockdown rules during the pandemic, offering an impromptu statement to journalists today (9 May) that was broadcast live on BBC News, Sky News and BBC 5 Live. “We shouldn’t be dragged down by this cynical belief that all politicians are the same,” the Labour leader told Sky’s Beth Rigby — and the parts of the nation paying attention. “We are not all the same, and I have set out today how I am different.”

But did he? Starmer’s statement and the brief Q&A that followed — in which the Labour leader announced that he would resign if Durham police retrospectively fine him for breaking lockdown rules — lasted for less than ten minutes, which seems brief given the problem Starmer faces.

That problem is not so much whether he gets fined as whether the public believe that he, like Boris Johnson, broke lockdown rules. He can be cleared by the police, as his team expect him to be, but still be undermined by this story. That is Starmer’s real problem, and polling data published this morning shows that it is a serious one.

Five in six 2019 Conservative voters believe that Starmer broke lockdown rules, as do two in five 2019 Lib Dems and one in three 2019 Labour voters. In all, just over half the country thinks that Starmer probably or definitely broke the rules, according to YouGov. This is a major issue for a man who has sought to make his spotless reputation the purest treasure in politics over the past two years.

Moments of crisis are also moments of opportunity, and Starmer missed one this afternoon. Some commentators are sanguine about the brevity of Starmer’s comments, which amounted to little more than the repeated assertion he had done nothing wrong, rather than an explanation of why that is the case. Yet nothing in the polling data offers much reason for Labour to be sanguine. This is a story that threatens the core of Starmer’s appeal — that he is a man of integrity and the Prime Minister isn’t.

Offering to resign is one way of trying to show your integrity, but it hardly seems sufficient. What Starmer could have done — given that he says he has nothing to hide — is to explain in detail why his meal with Labour activists did not break the rules. Others have offered an explanation — namely that the pre-planned dinner he had in Durham after a day of campaigning was necessary for the purposes of work, and was therefore not a social event, however social it may have been.

That defence does not hinge on whether or not Starmer and others went back to work, as he claimed last week — a claim that seems to have been needless, and which has since been undermined. Perhaps Starmer was wary of adding yet more detail, but withholding information hasn’t worked; it has only meant that he has to react to developments as they happen rather than being in control of the story. Most voters think Starmer broke the rules. They may well be wrong, but this afternoon Starmer — a Queen’s Counsel — was oddly reluctant to explain why with the forensic clarity of which he is capable.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s government is morally and intellectually bankrupt]

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