Sir Keir Starmer doesn’t seem to be one of life’s gamblers, but he has now put his political career on the line. If Durham Police decide that he did break the rules sufficiently to warrant a fixed penalty notice, then he will quit as leader. He wants to prove, he says, that not all politicians are the same.
While Boris Johnson refused to say if he would resign if issued with a fine for breaking Covid rules, because he could be fairly sure that he did attend social gatherings, Sir Keir is confident that he did not break the rules, and that he won’t have to stand down.
However, he knows that Durham Police are in a difficult position (one possibly made more invidious by Sir Keir’s move), and they still might quite conceivably issue him with an FPN. The new Starmer motto should be: who dares wins.
Then again, given the realities of this bizarre situation, it may not be such a wager as it seems. The Labour leader knows better than most that he would be quite unable to continue to do his job properly or command the respect of the public if he was found to have broken the law, and indeed to have committed the serious political crime of hypocrisy. On the other hand, if he is exonerated, his already strong reputation as a man of honour and integrity (in stark contrast to You Know Who) will be further gilded. Win-win, sort of.
Rather cleverly, then, Sir Keir has turned the tables on his tormentors, and converted a moment of jeopardy into one of opportunity. Even if it doesn’t pay off for him personally, it will redound to the credit of the Labour Party, and gift his successor with a party firmly in command of the moral high ground.
The press conference, albeit restricted to the broadcasters, also showed a willingness to face up to his problems. He did cancel a previously arranged speech, but he did not hide in a fridge, so to speak. It follows his increasingly powerful command of the Commons, and the encouraging gains Labour made in the council elections.
As he himself would be the first to remind anyone, there is much more to do before Labour can dream about a return to government, but the progress made by the Labour leader and his team speaks for itself – a nine percentage point swing compared to the December 2019 general election, a five percentage point lead on the Conservatives, the biggest gap for a decade, and significant gains in control of councils. Those are the measures of his achievements.
Still, he is mortal, and he may find it difficult to know which way to jump if the Durham Police come up with some criticism of a “minor breach” that is not serious enough to warrant a fine. The obvious precedent there is the famous case of Dominic Cummings (who later stated to a parliamentary committee that he had not given a full account of his actions in lockdown at the time).
Politics is very often the art of making the best of a bad job, and of persevering even under the most unrelenting, even unhinged, media campaign against you – one quality that the prime minister certainly possesses in abundance.
Sir Keir hasn’t buckled under the strain, even though he has looked uncomfortable in recent days. He has instead charted a route through the storm, and may well ride it out. He might even emerge from it stronger. If he does so, it will be because he hasn’t done anything wrong, rather than the case with his counterpart who clings to office even when the evidence of his wrongdoing is all around him and a fixed penalty notice has been issued. Not all politicians are the same.