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What if Keir Starmer’s gamble backfires?

Grabbing the moral high ground over “beergate” was a dramatic move. But it could cost Labour.

By Andrew Marr

We can say this much: the dangerous, badly handled aftermath of an incident involving Labour staffers, fizzy beer and somewhat bland-sounding curry has at the very least injected a much-needed note of drama into Keir Starmer’s leadership.

After dithering for days, on 9 May he made his public promise to resign if fined, with dignity, aplomb and a justified edge of anger. He did it well. He says he is sure that he did not break the rules. Polling suggests most people don’t believe him – we have become a cynical lot – but the numbers are evenly balanced and if he’s cleared, that will probably be that.

The final accusation that he is putting unfair pressure on the Durham police is absurd: it is only made by people frustrated at not being able to string this embarrassment out longer, and who had themselves been merrily piling pressure on the Durham police. When the shadow attorney general, Emily Thornberry, alleges the whole thing was put together by an anti-Labour hit squad – well, gentle reader, the lady may have a point.

[See also: Keir Starmer is under pressure]

Yet I said this was dangerous for Starmer. It really is. The new evidence that led the police to reopen their investigation can only have come from people at the event. They have told Tory newspapers they’re prepared to say it was a party, and work did not continue afterwards. So, this comes not from passers-by or hacks but from Labour staffers.

It came from people inside the machine, perhaps with a grudge against Starmer. If I were him, this is what would worry me most. There are plenty of staffers with justified grievances. Earlier this year, the Labour hierarchy fell out with the Unite union over a proposed real-terms pay cut for the party’s staff. Things have become nasty. The evidence-taking of the Durham constabulary might not be as predictable as we have been led to believe.

The Labour leader himself does not believe any new evidence could cause him fresh trouble – he insists it was a long, gruelling working day and no more. He is, however, livid that, in his view, the police have been bullied into reopening his case by the Daily Mail.

But it’s no good complaining about the Tory press. And as my colleague Harry Lambert has said, there were other ways of dealing with all this. Labour operators expressed bemusement that the leader’s office had not immediately made public all the internal information, receipts and statements it had. Instead, under constant media attack, team Starmer allowed half-truths, incomplete stories and small inconsistencies to dribble out… Not so far from the grudging tactics they once accused Downing Street of employing.

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But the damage is done. Labour can insist, angrily and righteously, that there is no comparison between the modest work gathering in Durham and the rowdy parties in No 10. But in cold reality, in terms of its political oomph, the air is being sucked out of “partygate”.

This may still change. The full Sue Gray report and the Commons privileges committee investigation lie ahead, and such stories can move fast. But, after losing more than 400 council seats, and with three very difficult by-elections ahead of him, Boris Johnson has been gifted another reprieve, and this time by the leader of the opposition.

The counter-argument is that Starmer’s theatrical coup was consciously, brilliantly, designed to spotlight Johnson. It contrasted the man of principle who would resign, with the scoundrel who never would. This convinces the already convinced, sure. But the mere notion that the Prime Minister would, for a zeptosecond, contemplate being shamed out of office by Sir Keir is… well, who said there was nothing left to laugh at in politics?

Let’s stand back. It is an utterly bizarre and unique situation to have the leadership of the UK opposition in the hands of police investigators. But this was a self-made disaster.

[See also: How Keir Starmer trapped himself]

In public the Labour movement is uniting against outside attack. I don’t suppose the left is allowed patriarchs these days, but if it had one it would be the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell. He told me recently that if Starmer had to go now he would be remembered “as an honourable person, someone who stood by principle”. True. But it’s now much harder for the Labour leader to continue assaulting Johnson day after day, week after week, on character, as amoral and unreliable.

This is desperately unfair. In their attitudes to rules, to family life, and in how they conduct themselves with colleagues, the two men couldn’t be more different. But taking on Johnson doesn’t open a discussion. Or even an argument. It’s a greased, grunting cage fight. And in that fight, Starmer has now lost something. I hope it isn’t self-belief.

In the meantime, with the rough unsentimentality of Westminster custom, Labour people have already been gathering over milky coffees to argue about Starmer’s replacement. The party, which is sentimental, would want Angela Rayner. But she was at the Durham event too and has made it clear that if Starmer goes, Rayner goes.

So, would it be Wes Streeting – the Blairite, uncannily fluent and able, gay, working-class health spokesman? He has been fiercely loyal to Starmer. Brought up in a Stepney council flat, he would be the likeliest replacement, if it was down to sheer ability. But he is too centre-right for many colleagues, and others ask whether Labour could, after so long, avoid having a female leader next?

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, would, I guess, be Keir Starmer’s choice. She has been a ruthless disciplinarian and learned her financial skills working as an economist for the Bank of England and at the high-street bank HBOS. But so far, she has not been able to construct a radical or popular economic alternative for hard times. Which takes us to a pair of northerners.

If she wanted it, Lisa Nandy could do the job. Tough, likeable and fast on her feet, the Manchester-born Wigan MP has been taking on Michael Gove over the levelling-up agenda. She understands the Red Wall as well as anyone. But she’s normal. Does she want it?

The most intriguing potential candidate isn’t in parliament at all. Andy Burnham, mayor of Manchester, aka “King of the North”, has emerged as the most radical-thinking senior Labour figure. He wants the Lords replaced by an elected senate of the nations and regions, and the Commons elected by PR – “I would like to see MPs elected more on a regional basis than on a constituency basis.”

Without being glib, Labour would be better off being led from the north than from London. On more bread-and-butter issues, Burnham has won an important legal battle about the right of councils to take bus services back under public control and has been a fierce critic of the cost of rail journeys around Britain.

He is, in other words, perfectly placed to lead the Labour Party at a time when the post-local-election numbers suggest a relationship with the Liberal Democrats will be essential to forming an anti-Conservative administration. He has seen up close just how much Labour still needs to do to win over, or win back, northern voters. Despite his training earlier on in Gordon Brown’s Treasury, he would be likely to produce a more imaginative economic agenda than Labour policy under Starmer-Reeves.

Indeed, across the piece, Burnham’s Labour would be more disruptive than Starmer’s. One Tory MP told me yesterday: “Beergate? We should be careful what we wish for.”

[See also: There is no case for Keir Starmer’s resignation]

The problem is that Burnham isn’t in parliament. Could he seize the by-election nomination for Wakefield? Perhaps not, but that would be a thriller. Another northern MP might well be persuaded to make way for him. This youthful veteran of the Blair and Brown cabinets has some quick thinking to do.

He has to do it, of course, against the backdrop of those local elections. They posed a basic question: who speaks for Britain? Which party has a convincing national voice that carries across at least most of the archipelago, and addresses the concerns of voters in small towns, cities, rural communities; the successful, and the struggling as well? For the first time in my life, I think the frankest answer is “no one”.

Neither the Conservatives nor Labour stretch across the UK any longer. The English Tories are now having to fight on two flanks – the shires, small towns and rural constituencies of the south-west, as well as the Red Wall; the party is retreating at speed not just in Scotland but now in Wales too, and it has been devastated in London.

Labour, meanwhile, is a distant second to the SNP in Scotland and has largely failed to retake the parts of northern England it lost in 2019. Opposition parties are going to need one another. Already, Conservative strategists are planning to warn of the danger of a “chaotic” coalition of Scottish Nationalists, Labour and Liberal Democrats, who would rewrite the constitution of the country.

Coming from a party that brought us Brexit, you may think this pretty rich. But peering at the incomplete and scattered tea leaves thrown out by the local elections, which show us becoming a patchwork nation, we can see the dim shape of an unfamiliar politics ahead.

And now this. Politics endlessly jumbles together the trivial and the momentous. Who would have thought that an irritated student, staring up at a Durham window and pulling out his mobile phone a year ago, might have unwittingly started reshaping opposition politics?

[See also: The local elections show Keir Starmer needs to raise his game]

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

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.

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer