Downing Street Is Wary Of Weighing In On Keir Starmer’s Resignation Pledge
Keir Starmer hopes to draw a distinction between his response to a police lockdown investigation and Boris Johnson's (Alamy)
Boris Johnson allies have been forced onto the back foot by Keir Starmer’s pledge to resign if he’s fined by Durham police over a lockdown breach, a clear attempt by the Labour leader to take the moral high ground as both party leaders face police investigation.
But while Starmer’s response to the investigation into a beer and curry event on the campaign trail last year has highlighted the Prime Minister's very different response to proven rule-breaking in Downing Street, it seems not to have made much of a splash outside Westminster.
Government insiders told PoliticsHome the view is to “treat it as an internal Labour Party matter,” and feel they should not be trying to weigh in themselves.
Others inside government said they enjoyed seeing Starmer forced into taking such a huge political gamble, after he had previously resisted addressing the Durham situation so directly.
“That’s the problem with getting up so very high on your high horse, the fall is much greater,” one special adviser quipped. Another said it was pleasing the former Director of Public Prosecutions now found himself “in the dock”.
When the Tory MP Graham Stuart joked that “never in the history of human conflict has so much karma come from a korma” in a jocular response to the Queen’s Speech in the Commons on Tuesday, there was laughter from across the Conservative benches at Starmer’s expense.
But as the row drags on, there is an increasing nervousness among some Tories about how Starmer resigning or being cleared could rebound on government.
Messages from Tory WhatsApp groups leaked to The Times show there was concern how this all might play out. "If Keir goes then what happens next?” Angela Richardson asked.
Ministers speaking to the media this week were told by the central Conservative party not to call for Starmer's resignation, and instead to focus on the hypocrisy angle.
“I think he should pay a fine and talk about the issues of great importance to the nation,” Jacob Rees-Mogg told Andrew Neil’s new Channel 4 show.
Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, told GB News that nobody should lose their job for a breach of Covid regulations.
Michelle Donelan, the skills minister, told Times Radio that Starmer’s resignation was “not for me to comment on at all,” and was instead a decision for the Labour leader.
Part of the reasoning for taking this more equivocal line is that by the time Durham Constabulary concludes its inquiry, Johnson could have received numerous further fines over his own potential lockdown breaches.
On Thursday morning, the Met police issued a further 50 fines over breaches of lockdown regulations in Downing Street, throwing that concern into sharp focus.
According to The Telegraph, Downing Street is now the most rule-breaking address in Britain, and although Johnson was not among those to be issued with a penalty notice in the Met’s latest batch, it highlighted the damage this scandal could still wreak over his administration.
“Johnson took a massive negative hit over partygate, and Keir Starmer from all of the data we've got so far, his numbers are pretty much unmoved after these allegations,” according to Chris Curtis, head of political polling at research firm Opinium.
James Johnson, co-founder of pollsters JL Partners, agreed that the Starmer pledge “hasn’t particularly landed” with voters.
“There's some sort of imperceptible thing, but for whatever reason it's just being met with a bit of a shrug,” he added.
Johnson, who runs regular focus groups, told PoliticsHome it may be because people are “getting fatigued” with the row, saying the “shock factor has definitely receded”.
But he believed the scandal could ramp up again if fines are handed out for an alleged party in the flat above Downing Street, or if images of the PM emerge at an event.
“Although it’s less shocking, that doesn't mean that the brand damage has receded for Johnson, it remains significantly changed from from earlier in the year,” he said.
“And the really worrying thing for [the prime minister] is that it's the USPs from 2019 have now become his weaknesses; strength to get things done and deliver, those things have been fatally undermined by the partygate situation."
But the pollster said if Starmer had hoped to draw a moral comparison with the PM so far that has not been the case with voters.
“They don't really believe that any politician is that different from any other,” he said.
“If Starmer was hoping for swing voters to turn around and say, ‘oh this is now the great moral man’, he's going to be disappointed with how the public are reacting.”
Curtis agreed that fighting on the principle of moral rectitude may not pay off for Starmer.
“I don't think you're onto a winner as a politician if your plan is to sell yourself as a decent honourable person, firstly because it's just too hard a bar to meet in the modern political ecosystem, but the other thing is that is that I'm just not sure it's the biggest driver of voting intention,” he told PoliticsHome.
“I think if you have somebody who doesn't necessarily play by the rules but gets things done and improves the lives of people in this country, people will appreciate that potentially more than somebody who does play by the rules.
“But they don't think it achieves positive things for them and their family and other people in the country.”
But Curtis did suspect Starmer’s resignation pledge had “neutralised” the so-called “beer-gate” row as a political story this week, and allowed the Labour leader to talk about other things, such as the cost of living crisis.
“None of this is to say that following the rules isn't important, and it obviously made a massive dent on Boris Johnson – to his reputation and his trustworthiness – and we can’t take away from that,” he said.
“Ultimately, when people are struggling to pay their bills, and that's the most important thing they say is facing them, facing their family, facing the country – that is the most important thing politicians should be focusing on.”
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