The Prime Minister’s ethics adviser resigned – the second to do so under Boris Johnson – last night (15 June) in opaque circumstances after telling MPs he was “frustrated” with partygate on Tuesday. Christopher Geidt’s public statement said only: “With regret, I feel that it is right that I am resigning from my post as independent adviser on ministers.” Pressure is building on No 10 to publish Geidt’s resignation letter.
It’s a stark reminder that partygate will continue to dog the Prime Minister as the government scrambles to find a platform for the next general election. Indeed, beneath the laboured jokes and tired cultural references, yesterday’s PMQs told us much about where politics is at the moment. With Johnson damaged from the confidence vote last week, the government has tried to shift the political conversation on to three topics: the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda, the government’s threat to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, and the looming railway strikes. In other words: immigration, Brexit and trade unions.
Yet those three overarching political stories were barely mentioned at yesterday’s PMQs. Much to Johnson’s exasperation, Starmer used his six questions to ask about the country’s economic woes and the rising cost of living. It was a tug of war over the political narrative, and hinted at each party’s strategy at the next general election. Faced with a deepening cost-of-living crisis and a flagship policy of levelling up that someone involved in its concoction in the 2019 election recently told me is “no more than a slogan”, the government is scrambling to promote issues it thinks will distinguish itself from Labour and distract from the escalating cost of living.
Geidt’s resignation will only encourage the government to double down on those wedge issues. Meanwhile, Labour is trying to slalom between divisive Tory policy announcements and keeping the focus on the government’s failings. One shadow cabinet member said to me this week that all Labour had to do to win the next election was watch the government flounder and crash. As the American pollster Frank Luntz recently told me, “it may be that 13 or 14 years is as long as a government can go now, in which case all Starmer has to do is not screw up – but I never want to wage that campaign”.
Indeed, the risk with such a strategy is that if Tory MPs do depose Johnson, which Geidt’s resignation makes more likely, then Labour will lose one of its main assets. (Another shadow cabinet member characterised partygate to me as “bad for the country; great for us”.) At that point, Labour’s pitch to the public becomes more central to distinguishing itself from Johnson’s inevitably blander and less scandal-prone successor. And promises of probity mixed with a bingo of abstract nouns might not cut it.
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