It breaks your heart. Our rogue Prime Minister has just been thrashed by the voters in the local elections. Our Great Misleader is staggering backwards, waiting for the knockout blow. And what are the headlines all about? Keir Starmer having a beer and curry with a dozen Labour activists after a day’s campaigning during a Covid lockdown.
It is bad enough that Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, should have put himself in a position where 54 per cent of the public now think he definitely or probably broke the rules, with just 21 per cent disagreeing. What was he thinking? Or not thinking?
Still worse, he and his team have inexplicably allowed the story to rumble on for nearly a fortnight. A daily drip of revelations — embarrassing emails, large bills, the previously denied presence of Angela Rayner, Diane Abbott’s singularly unhelpful intervention, the emergence of witnesses prepared to talk to the police, the cancellation of an event at which Starmer would have faced press questions — have diverted the spotlight from our unspeakable Prime Minister at his moment of greatest vulnerability. Is Starmer’s office really that inept, or that naive?
The other profoundly galling thing about beergate is that it doesn’t begin to compare to partygate. Qualitatively and quantitatively Starmer’s alleged offence is insignificant when set beside Boris Johnson’s multiple apparent breaches of Covid rules.
The opposition leader may have supported the Covid lockdowns, but he did not order them. He did not repeatedly appear on television to instruct the public to observe them. He did not, as Lisa Nandy pointed out on Sunday, preside over a dozen questionable gatherings in No 10, the very heart of government — gatherings that involved “karaokes, celebrations, leaving drinks, garden parties, pub quizzes and suitcases of wine”. Nor, unlike Johnson, has Starmer lied over and over again to parliament about his one possible transgression.
None of that has stopped the right-wing press and certain Tory MPs gleefully demanding Starmer’s resignation. “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” the Daily Mail’s front page protested when Johnson’s critics demanded the his resignation after he was fined last month. The Mail and its Sunday sister have since been hounding Starmer as if he were a criminal, and their cynical mudslinging on behalf of a thoroughly rotten prime minister is succeeding beyond their wildest dreams.
Starmer has now pledged to resign as Labour leader if an investigation by the Durham Constabulary — the same force that declined to question Dominic Cummings about his lockdown-breaking jaunt to the county in March 2020 — concludes with him being given a fixed-penalty notice. That is the act of a decent and honourable man. It allows Starmer to regain the moral high ground, draw a clear distinction between himself and Johnson, and put the pressure back on the Prime Minister.
But it is a huge gamble. The police may agree with Starmer’s insistence that he broke no rules, but he cannot be certain. If he is fined he would have to resign while our shameless Prime Minister would doubtless carry blithely on — no matter how many fines he receives and however damning the official report on the Downing Street parties proves.
That would be the greatest tragedy of all.
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.