Sunday, May 29, 2022
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Keir Starmer’s pledge to resign if fined has shifted the balance of power between him and Boris Johnson

Something important happened this week. Two politicians said they would resign if they were found to have broken the law. I cavilled at the way it was done, a vainglorious “news conference” in front of three journalists, in which Keir Starmer boasted that he was different from the prime minister because he believed in “honour, integrity and principle”. That is going to come back to haunt him.

I mean, either it will come back to haunt him in the direct and obvious sense, if the Durham police decide to issue him with a fixed penalty notice. I think that is unlikely, and Starmer presumably does too. But even if the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party – because Angela Rayner said it too – remain in post, that high moral tone is going to cause him trouble. Any suggestion that he is falling short of the most stringent standards of probity is going to bring forth calls for his resignation.

However, it should be recognised that it is an unusual gamble to take, and admirable in a kind of pointless sacrifice way. It exposes an almost reckless confidence, not usually discernible in Starmer’s hesitant public persona, not just that he will get off on the charge of enjoying an illegal curry and beer, but that he can draw attention to the possibility of his standing down without destabilising the party.

By suggesting that he might resign, he triggered speculation about who might replace him. At a time when Labour people had been enjoying the sight of Conservative MPs advertising their availability to serve in case the prime minister should fall, Westminster suddenly turned into a double beauty contest with contenders on both sides of the Commons taking a trip down the catwalk.

It had hardly been noticed until then how wide open the “next Labour leader” field was. The betting market still lists Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, as the favourite, even though if Starmer went in the next few weeks he wouldn’t be eligible as he is not an MP, and the leading candidates would actually be Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, and Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling-up secretary – assuming that Rayner couldn’t stand because she would have been fined as well.

Burnham and Nandy this week rehearsed that tired ritual of “refusing to rule out another leadership bid”, while Streeting, with a bit more wit and flair, said he thought he would be too old to be leader after a three-term Starmer government. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, is hard to read, but I haven’t come across any well-sourced suggestion that she would run. Other candidates might emerge and catch fire, or crash and burn. Louise Haigh, shadow transport secretary, is an impressive media performer, as is Stella Creasy, who came second to Tom Watson for the deputy leadership in 2015.

But the striking thing about Labour leadership speculation is how similar it is to the Conservative equivalent since the fall of Rishi Sunak. This is a thought experiment, not a realistic scenario, but if Boris Johnson were to say, “I’ve thought about it and Keir is absolutely right, I should, having broken the law, now resign”, the thinness of the field to succeed him would be a meagre sight to behold.

Again, the betting market is a poor guide: Liz Truss, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Ben Wallace and Penny Mordaunt are the only candidates who are given (just) more than a 10 per cent chance. Of those only Mordaunt was a Leaver, which I think is a basic requirement in the final party membership vote, which is why I think Sunak would still win, and may be why Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, popped up today saying that people should be proud of private schools. (In a telling cross-party endorsement Zahawi also said in his Times interview that Streeting is “the most talented and best communicator Labour has got – I’ve been backing him for ages”).

Thus both main party leaders are secure in their jobs for the time being, a period of stasis that has a curious effect on the perspective of politics. Suddenly, Johnson’s government feels tired, more like the end of 12 years of Tory rule and less like something Brexity and new. When the prime minister said at the beginning of his speech to introduce the legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, “as we come to the halfway point of this parliament”, it felt as if history was turning on its axis.

We may be more than halfway through, in fact: two-and-a-half years gone and an election now probably less than two years away, in May 2024. That adds to the feeling that coronavirus wasted the first half of this parliament, which is the only time governments can get big changes done, and that it is too late to deliver any meaningful reform before the election.

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There has been a shift this week. Starmer faced the prospect of his career coming to an end and overcame it. His party has had a good look at the alternatives on offer, but the case for a change of leadership is not yet made. The same has happened in the Conservative Party. Johnson came face to face with the possibility of ejection from office earlier this year, but the police investigation bought him time and Sunak’s troubles removed the immediate threat altogether.

Starmer’s brush with his political mortality has strengthened him, though. He is dull, competent, not particularly popular, but he seems more like an alternative prime minister who has been through the bruising test of a Tory press onslaught without a dent in his opinion-poll ratings.

Johnson, on the other hand, keeps up the high-energy talk and high-visibility activity – the army of No 10 photographers never sleeps – but he seems to have broken the connection that he had with the voters. Too many now seem to say: “Brexit was done; thank you and goodnight.” This was the week he began to seem like a Tory prime minister who had been around a long time, to no good effect.


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