The legal process and politics of alleged breaches of lockdown rules by senior politicians are innately intertwined. Whilst in reality the law and investigations regarding ‘partygate’ and ‘beergate’ are rather different, to the public both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are on trial. When comparing the allegations of partygate and beergate, one attempts to undertake a ‘case analysis’: an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Upon doing so, it is clear that there is only one winner in the important trial of Starmer -v- Johnson.
In terms of character evidence, the contrast could not be starker. Johnson is a man who has been sacked from several jobs for lying, including in frontline politics. He has had to undertake a tour of Liverpool to apologise for an article that asserted that they overplayed the Hillsborough tragedy which led to 97 innocent people losing their lives. In his own private life, it is known that he has had several affairs and it is suggested he left his last wife for a Tory aide in the midst of her cancer treatment. As the Tory-supporting veteran commentator Max Hastings put it: “I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be Prime Minister.” Several of his ex-wives might concur. Tories themselves, including those who serve and have served in his cabinet, clearly believe the same.
On the other hand, Starmer is a distinguished barrister who rose, at a remarkably young age, to take silk and eventually become the director of public prosecutions. During his time at the bar, Starmer undertook swathes of pro bono work. He assisted those on death row in the Caribbean and developed the Death Penalty Project to continue such work (and they continue to do so today). From the very beginning of the McLibel case, he acted for Helen Steel and David Morris, when many other lawyers would have simply walked away, in standing up to a giant corporation – and won. Character references are adduced from many victims of crime who he supported during his time as DPP. None are as powerful as that from Doreen Lawrence, who introduced Starmer’s conference speech last year. In his personal life, the Daily Mail has dug and dug but so far merely revealed that Starmer once purchased a field near his parent’s home to house rescued donkeys.
Now to the facts. The Prime Minister is accused of being part of arranging multiple gatherings and parties with colleagues, friends and family in contravention of the lockdown rules. There is direct evidence of his staff laughing about such parties. There are pictures of such gatherings. There are multiple witnesses who state that such gatherings occurred. Indeed, Johnson has been fined (only once, at the time of writing) for such an offence.
Starmer was campaigning during an election. His presence in an office, with other staff and colleagues, has been investigated and found to have been wholly lawful. The ‘revelations’ are that food was ordered and consumed during work, which appear reasonably necessary to anyone who gets hungry when working. At the heart of the contrast is this: the Labour leader was working and stopped for food and drink as part of his job whilst Johnson organised, or permitted for the organisation of, gatherings for the purpose of just that… to gather with the aim of celebrating a birthday or drinking wine and eating cheese (as much as Johnson would like, these are not functions of his job).
And what of the evidential basis? As stated, Johnson has been caught by multiple witnesses with primary evidence of his rule breaking. On closer inspection, Starmer being reported to the police is part of a concerted agenda from several rather murky sources. Firstly, the person who took the video of the alleged breach is the son of James Delingpole, the hard-right commentator. Secondly, Durham police have been written to and harassed by several Conservative MPs including Richard Holden – no stranger to the criminal justice system himself – and Andrew Brigden who was recently found to have lied in court during a family dispute. Thirdly, journalists for the Daily Mail, who misrepresented facts and obsessed for 12 days about Starmer’s beer, having previously said that partygate was a non-issue because of the war in Ukraine. These are the same journalists who bemoaned Starmer’s attempt to save some donkeys from a sad demise. The court of public opinion may raise an eyebrow at the impartiality of the witnesses.
The title of the popular Netflix drama and book by Sarah Vaughan, Anatomy of a Scandal, perfectly implies the often complex and multilayered origins of political scandal – based on historic alliances, blackmail, deception and Machiavellian politics. Vaughan must have had in mind the cases of Jeremy Thorpe or John Profumo: flawed politicians, and men, who kept digging holes that only led to more troublesome circumstances and decisions. Similarly, Johnson lied and lied but was unable to avoid the authorities in the end. Conversely, for all the attempts of a cabal of right-wing journalists and Tory MPs to suggest otherwise, beergate lacks any of these elements. Starmer had some food and drink whilst working. Netflix will struggle to make a series about this.
The next general election will not be won or lost as a result of these investigations. But Labour should not be shy of making the argument as to personal values: Starmer’s honesty, decency and integrity are clear dividing lines against the shambolic and morally bankrupt Johnson. Whilst this might not win the next general election, it certainly will not hinder the cause.