Keir Starmer pauses as he delivers a virtual speech on Britain's economic future in London. File/Reuters
Sean O’Grady & Andrew Grice, The Independent
I’ve got a terrible feeling that “Beergate” might end badly for the Labour Party: Starmer might survive. And that’s a bad outcome for the party, if not its leader. He is a wounded animal at the moment, unable to do the job of leader of the opposition properly, and his public image suddenly and permanently smeared. Might Labour be better off if someone such as Lisa Nandy or Wes Streeting took over? Mud sticks. The fact is that Starmer will never recover from Beergate, even if he is proven “innocent”. It’d be like a faint but ineradicable curry stain on a nice shirt – hardly noticeable, but you know it’s there and people can still see it even if you wear a kipper tie.
Even if Starmer is entirely exonerated, never again will he be able to command the moral high ground, even though he’s the straightest leader they’ve had since Hugh Gaitskell. He’s supposed to be the saintly antidote to Boris Johnson. The upstanding, statesmanlike contrast to Johnson was one thing; but as a flawed man (real or perceived) who fell short of the exalted standards of integrity he sets himself, his whole appeal is lost. Beergate is a weapon that can be reached for whenever a Tory is in trouble.
The worst thing for Labour now – and what the Tories seem to want – is for Starmer to survive as damaged goods, limping his way to the next election, his USP of integrity fatally (if unfairly) compromised. Note how few Tories are calling for him to resign. That’s not just because the logical corollary is that Johnson should go; it’s to preserve a weakened leader of the opposition. No wonder Jacob Rees-Mogg is calling for a truce and to move on. That would suit the Tories very well. The irony of the present situation is that the Tory media has been so vicious and so effective in its character assassination that they’ll succeed in actually toppling Starmer. He is a man of honour, after all, which they’re not used to, and if he feels resignation is the right thing to do for him and for the party and the people, he’ll do it.
There is a deeper point too. Even if Starmer was still unsullied by any whiff of impropriety, he still wasn’t exactly setting the country alight. His last set-piece performance against Johnson, in the debate about the PM lying to parliament, was spellbinding in its pace and moral authority; but it’s not enough, and especially if Beergate is the yobbish heckle. Starmer enjoyed decent polling leads over Johnson personally, but mainly because Johnson was such a mess – it was rather a negative verdict, and with a lot of “don’t knows”. A couple of years into his leadership and the voters still haven’t yet caught Starmermania. The polling and survey research suggests that they respect him (possibly less so now), but aren’t that sure about who he is or what he stands for, except being more acceptable than Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson.
He’s strongly associated with the Remain campaign and the second EU referendum campaign, which is still resented in some Brexity places. He’s got the kind of middle-class London, socially liberal image that Ed Miliband and Corbyn had. Even though Starmer’s background and politics are very different, like Miliband and Corbyn, he reminds some of the red-wall voters how Labour doesn’t share their social or cultural values, a trick Johnson somehow pulls off when he appeals to what he calls their “raw instincts”.
Starmer is a bit bland, a bit vanilla, a portion of beige chicken korma rather than a spicy scarlet Madras with extra lime pickle to liven things up even more. Even before Beergate, Starmer’s leadership wasn’t all that inspiring. Harsh but true.
The brutal truth is that the best thing for Labour would be if Starmer was replaced by someone who had a bit more star quality, like Tony Blair had in his day, or indeed Johnson, before “Big Dog” grew a bit mangy and incontinent.
Unlike the Conservatives, there plenty of figures on the front bench who’d be excellent replacements. Two of the most capable performers to have been promoted by Starmer and emerged in recent weeks are Streeting and Nandy. Streeting has an impressively Blair-like confidence and fluency, and has little baggage from the Corbyn era. Johnson would find him a bit of a challenge, and the same goes for Lisa Nandy, not least because Johnson finds facing a woman in parliament peculiarly difficult.
Yvette Cooper is a skilled debater, and Rachel Reeves seems to care rather more about the taxpayers’ (ie voters’) money than the present collection of multimillionaires and non-doms showering cash on their cronies. There are others around – Andy Burnham, Jon Ashworth, Hilary Benn, Jonathan Reynolds.
Sadly, the stellar Angela Rayner seems to have been caught up in the Durham non-scandal. She’s fading, for now. In any case, Labour, unusually, is rather spoilt for choice for its next leader. To be sure of overturning Johnson’s 80-seat majority it needs to be doing rather better than it did in last week’s elections. The party needs to shift up a gear.
There’s a bit of an analogy with the past here. After the historic 1983 defeat under Michael Foot, it took two more leaders to rebuild the foundations for success, to do the “heavy lifting” of internal reforms and then consolidate the progress on policy and presentation – the work of Neil Kinnock and John Smith. But the untimely death of Smith in 1994 created a political opportunity for the next leader to turbo-charge Labour’s appeal, and make sure it got into government with a decent majority and for more than one term – Blair.
Starmer has done more for his party than anyone thought possible in December 2019, and no one else could have done it. Yet politics is a rough, ungrateful trade, and perhaps the moment has come, providentially, for someone else to take the project to the next level. It’s an exciting prospect. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has done the brave and honourable thing by announcing that he would resign as Labour leader if he is fined for breaking lockdown rules in April last year by having a beer and takeaway curry at the Durham Miners Hall.
It is also the right thing politically. Never mind the lack of clear blue water between the two main parties on policy; this dramatic move puts an ocean between him and Boris Johnson on the question of integrity. It shines an even more unflattering light on the prime minister’s refusal to resign over his fixed penalty notice for attending a birthday event in the Cabinet Room, and will add to Johnson’s political pain if he receives any more fines.
This could be the defining moment of Starmer’s leadership – something that most people will notice, welcome and remember. There haven’t been many – or perhaps any – in his two years as Labour leader. It’s not quite the Clause IV moment that Tony Blair achieved on policy by ditching Labour’s commitment to public ownership to show his party had changed. But when Johnson has become the first PM to be fined in office and investigated for misleading parliament, it is a powerful symbol.