Sir Keir Starmer has had mixed reviews since he became Labour’s leading man. Decent and diligent, but dull. Serious and competent, but colourless and uncharismatic. Better at running a meeting than inspiring the crowd. Effective at the dispatch box, but struggling to articulate a defining vision to the country or to make a fizzing connection with the electorate. For better and for worse, it has largely been a case of no-drama Starmer over the past two years.
Nobody thought of this unflashy, cautious and fastidious man as a huge gambler. The last venue anyone expected to find Sir Keir was in the casino hurling dice at the craps table. Yet he has placed a bet with vertiginously high stakes by pledging to “do the right thing and step down” if found guilty of breaching lockdown rules. If he ends up quitting, historians will scratch their heads over how it came to pass that a law-breaking prime minister could cling to office despite numerous and flagrant instances of lockdown-busting at Number 10, while the leader of the opposition impaled himself on his honour over just one event.
Some will dispute my suggestion that he has taken a gamble. Sir Keir insists that he made his televised pledge confident that the police will not find against him because he broke no rules when he had a beer and a takeaway curry with aides and local activists after a day of campaigning in the north of England in April last year. His team say they have the proof necessary to convince the Durham constabulary that he was taking a meal break while at work, an allowable exception to the ban on “indoor socialising” which applied at the time.
Yet he can’t be 100% certain that the police will endorse his belief that this was lawful. No one can be totally sure. Some of his allies aren’t. One lawyer friend of the Labour leader says: “He did absolutely nothing wrong. He will be OK, I think, but obviously there is a risk that the police will take a different view.”
A significant element of the risk is that the police have not been models of consistency in handling allegations of lockdown-busting by politicians and their staff. The Metropolitan force was initially reluctant to investigate the partying in Downing Street until the scale of the public uproar forced it to act. Durham police had earlier declared that Sir Keir had no case to answer, only then to change its minds on the grounds that new evidence had come to light. So there is definite risk in placing his fate in the hands of the detectives.
Others say this can’t be properly called “a gamble” because the Labour leader only made his pledge when he had run out of other options. It is true that he and his team badly fumbled responses to a ferocious campaign waged by the Tories and their media allies to push the police into opening an investigation. His office came up with inconsistent accounts of the event and he gave interviews that were woodenly defensive.
At the traditional reception hosted by the Speaker on the day of the Queen’s speech, one former Tory cabinet minister came up to Sir Keir and said to him: “You may have been the best prosecutor of your generation, but you are the world’s worst defence witness.” The Labour leader responded “thanks very much” before breaking into a rueful smile. He has built his personal brand and sought to strike a flattering contrast with his Tory rival by presenting himself to the public as “Mr Rules”, the champion of integrity in public life. He has repeatedly called for Boris Johnson to resign. Tories have been braying that the Labour leader is a “hypocrite”.
These were clearly factors when he made his decision, but the suggestion that he had no choice gives Sir Keir less credit than he deserves. Many others in his position would have swerved making such a unequivocal pledge. The typical political operator would have looked for a way to slither through and hunker down until the storm passed. I’ve heard plenty of MPs, both Labour and Conservative, privately describe him as crazy for gambling his career on this.
The Tories were not demanding his resignation. They were in no position to call for his head when the number of penalty notices imposed on the denizens of Downing Street now exceeds 100, with one fine slapped on the prime minister already and potentially more coming his way. There was no great pressure on Sir Keir from within his own party. The only voices suggesting that he might have to go belonged to dispossessed Corbynites such as Diane Abbott. One senior Labour figure reports: “A lot of people on our side are saying he’s been very foolish, he shouldn’t have made this promise. A more hardened politician would have avoided it.”
He could have held to the line that there is no equivalence between a bottle of beer and a takeaway in a constituency office and what went on at the heart of government during some of the deadliest stretches of the pandemic. His alleged single infraction is very much less serious than proved and serial partying at Number 10, among them a “bring-your-own-booze” bash, “wine Fridays”, Christmas revelries and a raucous night-time leaving do that involved a karaoke machine and a suitcase of alcohol being lugged into the building. One of the most galling things for Labour MPs is that so-called beergate is very small beer compared with partygate. Nor is Sir Keir charged, as the prime minister very much is, with deliberately lying to parliament about transgressing the rules. So there was a low road he could have sneaked down and many other politicians in his circumstances would have gone that way. I find it admirable that he instead chose to take the high but more hazardous road.
If the result is career-ending, he will at least be able to say that he leaves Labour in a much better state than he found it. The last general election was such a catastrophe for the party that its parliamentary representation was crushed down to its lowest level since 1935. Tories confidently bragged – and Labour people fatalistically groaned – that the Conservatives had been guaranteed another decade in power. There’s much less of that kind of talk these days. The opinion polls and the results of the recent local elections do not arouse boundless confidence that Labour is on a sure trajectory to winning the next election.
But the party’s position today is a considerable advance on where it stood two years ago.
One of the big improvements on Sir Keir’s watch has been to the calibre of Labour’s front bench line-up. He has reharnessed established talents in his party who went into internal exile during the Corbyn years, such as Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves. By giving a high-profile role to Lisa Nandy, he has not overlooked the abilities of someone who competed against him for the leadership. He has also brought on rising stars such as Wes Streeting. All of the above are among the potential contenders to succeed him if it comes to that.
His team-building is a highly attractive contrast with his Tory rival, a man solely animated by his own selfish interests, who protects his position by surrounding himself with slavish mediocrities.
If the police investigation exonerates Sir Keir, the interesting question is whether his gamble will deliver any reward. It will not shame Mr Johnson into quitting because nothing will. Shame is not a component of this prime minister’s DNA. It will draw an even more compelling contrast between the two men. Labour MPs returned from campaigning in the local elections worried about the many encounters with voters who rejected their solicitations by saying “you’re all the same” or “you’re all as bad as each other”. A dismal view of the political class as a whole absolutely suits the Tory leader. Since a hefty majority of voters think that Mr Johnson is a mendacious scoundrel, he is best served if they have an equally low opinion of the competition.
Sir Keir hopes to change that by acting so very differently to his Tory counterpart and demonstrating that not all politicians have the bottom-dwelling standards of the incumbent. Doing the right thing matters. Integrity in public life matters. Do they matter enough to sufficient voters to make a critical difference when they next choose a prime minister? If they don’t, the Labour leader will have risked his career without achieving anything for his cause. Expecting his pledge to gain him credit with a country made cynical about its politicians is Sir Keir’s greatest gamble of all.