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19 April 2022

How will voters react to partygate fines? It’s up to Keir Starmer

As parliament returns the Labour leader has a chance to frame this as a story of fairness and public sacrifice.

By Freddie Hayward

Boris Johnson is poised to address the Commons this afternoon for the first time since receiving his fine as parliament returns from an Easter break. Johnson is expected to append his comments to a statement about the war in Ukraine rather than address the two issues separately, as has been demanded by the chairman of the Standards Committee, Chris Bryant.

This in a nutshell seems to be the government’s strategy: frame partygate as merely a few careless bites of cake and cans of warm beer that pale in significance to other issues such as the start of a renewed Russian offensive in Ukraine. Such a strategy makes Keir Starmer’s performance this afternoon and at PMQs tomorrow more important. Starmer’s performances are key in framing the issue for the public, but also for MPs themselves. If Starmer opts for mock disbelief at the Prime Minister’s sophistry, he risks reinforcing a sense that the scandal is frivolous. Some of his more compelling performances on partygate – before the Spring Statement and before the war on Ukraine – connected it to the more fundamental issues of fairness and people’s sacrifices during the pandemic (Tory MPs were stunned in response to one of Starmer’s tirades at the end of January).

[See also: Why Boris Johnson is safe – for now]

The other key issue is whether Johnson knowingly misled parliament – a resignation matter under the ministerial code. Opposition parties are pushing the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, to allow MPs to decide whether Johnson misled the house, either through a vote or a committee investigation. Trying to set up an investigation will help to drag the scandal out, but the government’s large majority means any judgement is unlikely to pass through the Commons. It’s also tricky to prove conclusively that he knowingly misled parliament because Johnson can simply claim ignorance. And even if this did happen, it’s highly unlikely that Johnson would resign.

Johnson’s tendency to ignore constitutional conventions blunts the impact of such parliamentary manoeuvres. Political change necessitates momentum, which is often dependent on the mood among MPs in Westminster. That’s why it was significant that the police issued Johnson’s fine during recess: MPs couldn’t judge the mood of their colleagues while holed up in their constituencies. At this stage in the scandal – as we await further fines, the report on the parties by Sue Gray and the pivotal local elections – the framing of the narrative is central to shaping how Tory MPs, and the broader electorate, react to future developments.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

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