Starmer’s beergate gamble underlines the contrast between him and Johnson

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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Keir Starmer has staked his political future on the outcome of the police investigation into ‘beergate’. In a press conference yesterday afternoon, the Labour leader said: “If the police decide to issue me with a fixed-penalty notice, I would of course do the right thing and step down.” He stressed that he was “absolutely clear” that no laws were broken and that he had “simply had something to eat while working late in the evening”. He told viewers that he had followed the rules throughout the pandemic. “The idea that I would then casually break those rules is wrong, and frankly, I don’t believe those accusing me believe it themselves.” Following Starmer’s statement, Angela Rayner released one of her own, confirming that she would also do the “decent thing” and resign if she was fined over the event in Durham.

Starmer and Rayner’s choice of words demonstrates their desire to draw a clear line between their principled stance and that of Boris Johnson, who has so far failed to face up to the consequences of his actions. Bridget Phillipson continued with this line of attack on the broadcast round this morning, telling Sky News: “I think the contrast between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer is there for everyone to see.” The Shadow Education Secretary described Starmer as a man of “integrity” and  “decency”, unlike the Prime Minister who, despite having been found to have broken the law, “still clings on at No 10”. Asked whether Starmer’s move was “high-risk”, Phillipson said she thinks it is the “right thing to do”, adding that that is what “motivates Keir Starmer”.

So what happens now? Scenario one: the Labour leader is fined and resigns, possibly accompanied by his deputy, throwing the party into the chaos of a leadership election – a distraction from the key issue of the cost of living but also from the ongoing investigation into ‘partygate’. Various names are already being discussed as potential successors to Starmer – including Lisa Nandy, Wes Streeting, Yvette Cooper, David Lammy and Rachel Reeves. From beyond the shadow cabinet, it is thought that Barry Gardiner may throw his hat in the ring again, possibly billed as a ‘unity candidate’.

Scenario two: the Labour leader avoids a fine but Durham Police still conclude that a breach may have taken place, as has been the force’s policy in the past. This is in some ways the worst-case scenario. Starmer has been careful to say that he would only resign if he is issued with a fixed-penalty notice. Staying on as leader if the police conclude that the Durham incident may have broken the law would severely dent Starmer’s claim to the moral high ground.

Scenario three: the Labour leader is not found to have broken the law and the pressure is back on Johnson. It is unlikely that this alone would cause the Prime Minister to quit. He has so far been unmoved by the damage partygate has caused to his reputation among the British public. The key, as it has always been, will be the impact this outcome has on Johnson’s reputation among his own MPs – could this finally be enough to undermine their faith in his leadership? Labour said yesterday that the party has compiled time-stamped logs from WhatsApp chats, documents and video edits proving that staff continued working after their takeaway in Durham, suggesting that the party expects Starmer and others will be cleared of any wrongdoing.

The reaction to Starmer’s decision in the press has been mixed to say the least, but one response that will hearten the Labour leader came from the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK campaign group, who tweeted: “This is the right decision by Keir Starmer and in contrast to Boris Johnson, shows integrity, decency and respect to the bereaved. At the end of the day, the country can’t be led by someone who’s been fined for breaking lockdown rules.” If this statement is any indication of wider public mood, Starmer’s gamble has the potential to pay off handsomely – positioning him and the Labour Party as the party of honour and integrity, in striking contrast to the brazen law-breaking of Johnson and his colleagues.

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