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25 June 2020

Why isn’t Keir Starmer calling for Robert Jenrick to resign?

There are two reasons why the leader of a big party should avoid calling for resignations.

By Stephen Bush

Why hasn’t Keir Starmer called for Robert Jenrick to resign, and why is he right not to? That seems like two questions, but they in fact have the same answer: media management and some of the particular conventions of the way that British political journalism, most importantly the BBC, tend to report these stories.

The nature of the British media ecosystem at the present time is that, provided you have a good BBC strategy – as David Cameron, the SNP under Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond, and Boris Johnson in 2019 all had – then the rest of your media strategy pretty much takes care of itself. That doesn’t solely mean that you can ignore the rest of the media ecosystem, because the ways the rest of the industry behaves shapes the BBC. But broadly if you have a good strategy for the BBC, and a good strategy for Facebook, you have a good strategy for everything else.

Firstly and most importantly, the BBC tends to treat internal party criticism as more “honest” than criticism from external opponents, but also tends to treat external criticism from the main opposition party as more newsworthy than criticism from internal opponents, to the point that once Keir Starmer calls for someone to quit, internal critics are almost totally erased from the narrative. Once Starmer actually said that if he were prime minister he’d have sacked Dominic Cummings, the narrative on most radio phone-ins and discussion programmes shifted from “Conservatives in turmoil over Cummings” to “Labour calls for him to go – well, they would, wouldn’t they?”

Secondly, Starmer can keep himself in the news, as far as the Jenrick story, for as long as he likes, by simply finding synonyms for the phrase “looks fishy, Johnson has questions to answer”. Once he has actually called for Jenrick to go, he ceases to have anything new to say in the eyes of most outlets: and with that, the story drops from view.

Whether it is the Conservatives against a Labour politician or vice versa, there are a handful of times when it becomes appropriate to actually use the R-word and call for a resignation: mostly when the other party has so badly misjudged the public mood that the benefits of being shown to be “on the public’s side” outweigh the costs of losing your ability to keep driving the story forward. It’s hard to say for certain when the right moment to do this is – I think on balance Starmer should have kept his powder dry a little longer on the Cummings scandal, as the handling of the row was so bad that leaving it to the Conservatives to keep inflating it was the right call. But equally, the story was dying down anyway and he may well have been better off intervening when he did.

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The position is very different if you are the third party, i.e. the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish Labour party. The biggest media outlets are not going to write about you that often, and you, therefore, have an incentive to go big, go hard and go early. The risk to Ed Davey or Layla Moran or Richard Leonard of looking “weak” is negligible – they lead the third party, they are weak. They only get one bite at the cherry of any story in any case. The benefits of getting their face on the telly or on the BBC website are high.

And that’s why it’s mostly in the interests of the big two parties not to call for resignations – and for the minor parties to do so.