“I’ve always followed the rules,” Sir Keir Starmer told us, staring down the barrel of the camera. If you didn’t catch it, he said it four more times. “We followed the rules,” he said. “I had to isolate six times during Covid. Because we followed the rules.” If your political pitch is “dull but reliable”, you might as well lean into it.
Partisanship is a vice easier to spot in others than oneself
The Labour leader was doing his best to look determined and forthright, although he and his team had clearly spent the previous 72 hours in a tizzy, trying to work out the best response to Durham Police’s decision to investigate the exact circumstances in which he sipped from a bottle of beer and ate a curry last year. He had skipped a memorial service and a speech in order to work out the answer to this question, and he now had one.
His backdrop was a sort of embarrassed purple, with the flags that now follow every British politician around the country as proof of their patriotism, and Labour’s current, instantly forgettable slogan: “Security. Prosperity. Respect.”
“I simply had something to eat while working late in the evening,” Starmer said, describing what is becoming the most analysed team dinner since the Last Supper. “But if the police decide to issue me with a fixed penalty notice, I would, of course, do the right thing and step down. This matters. It matters because the British public deserve politicians who think the rules apply to them.”
The statement was followed by a mini press conference that, to be honest, did neither the Labour leader nor the press many favours. Only three broadcast journalists had been allowed in, probably because Team Starmer suspects that many of the papers are not fair dealers on this.
Like motes and beams in eyes, partisanship is a vice easier to spot in others than oneself. But it seems fair to note that newspapers which complained about any reporting of a series of 2020 parties in Number 10 have devoted quite a lot of space to Starmer’s 2021 curry.
His pledge to quit was, in many ways, a statement of the obvious.
The big questions — Do you think you broke the law? Will you resign if the police disagree? — had been answered in the Labour leader’s statement, so the press circled around whether it had been a mistake for him to call for Boris Johnson to resign when the police launched their investigation in January. Despite the length of time he’d had to prepare, Starmer’s answers on this were oddly weak. Perhaps in a few days he’ll have worked out the answer. It seems to take him a while to find the right gear.
His pledge to quit was, in many ways, a statement of the obvious. It would have been impossible for him to argue that being fined was a small matter. Partly because of everything he’s said, but also because it’s not a small matter. It says much about the topsy-turvy world into which Boris Johnson has led us that men and women of apparently good sense can wonder aloud why it matters if the prime minister broke the law around which his entire government turned for more than a year.
There was an idea floating around over the weekend that by making an announcement like this, Starmer would put Johnson to shame. Presumably this idea was being promoted by people who don’t follow politics closely. Johnson is incapable of feeling shame.
Over on Twitter, Labour MPs were lauding Starmer’s honour and integrity. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen demanded that Starmer be investigated by the same police who were investigating Johnson. His colleagues, who have spent weeks demanding Durham Police act, were complaining that Starmer was now putting the force under pressure. And those who had spent the morning demanding to know why Starmer wasn’t making a statement on “beergate” were now complaining that he had made a statement. Some people are never happy.
Meanwhile whatever else we can accuse Johnson of, he has not burdened the Metropolitan Police with deciding on his future. On the contrary, he has made it clear that they can fine him from now to the end of time, and he will take no notice whatsoever. Despite the fervent hopes of Conservative MPs who want him gone but can’t bring themselves to knife him, he is not about to do the honourable thing. Or indeed any honourable thing. That’s who he is, and he might as well embrace it.
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