This simply is make or break for Keir Starmer. By announcing that he will resign as Labour leader if he is fined for breaching Covid restrictions, he has gambled his position on a police inquiry whose outcome he cannot predict with absolute certainty.
But necessity was the mother of invention. Having called so unequivocally for the prime minister’s resignation after he was fined, Starmer’s position would have been untenable were he to be similarly punished over a legitimate campaign event in Durham which was rounded off with curry and beer. He would be the former Director of Public Prosecutions, the self-proclaimed hard man on law and order, who himself broke the law. The risks are therefore not as great as they might appear.
And the potential gains are large. The Labour leader lacks Boris Johnson’s charisma. His biggest selling point to voters was that, unlike the prime minister, he is a man of integrity — again the former DPP — who believed in the rules. Had he sought to stay on after being fined, his credibility would be shot.
If he escapes a fine — as he seems sure he will — he can show himself to be a man of principle. He will be defined in the public mind as someone who believes in obeying the rules and will stand in sharp contrast to a prime minister who does not. He is the dry leader of a party with a limited agenda for power. This move, seemingly brave and principled, could be the making of him.
Johnson is potentially facing more fines and the full publication of the Sue Gray report, which is likely to make very unpleasant reading for Tories. Last week’s local elections were bad for the Conservatives and Johnson is widely blamed. A boost to Starmer’s standing will only deepen the conviction of Tories who believe, as the polls suggest, that the prime minister is now dragging his party down.
If Starmer is fined, the calculation is different. The hope, entertained by some Labour figures, that such an outcome would shame Johnson into quitting is for the birds. Johnson, who has already been fined once, will argue that Starmer has gone because it would have been hypocritical to do otherwise since he said this was a resigning issue. Johnson has always maintained his breaches are second order matters and will stick to that position.
Labour would meanwhile be launched into an inward looking leadership contest in which the deputy leader Angela Rayner would also be ruled out since she was at the same event and has said she too would quit if fined. The party will not be talking about the things which matter to voters. The hard left is probably too marginalised to win — or even get a contender on to the ballot — but centrist candidates like the much rated Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, might also struggle. The leader will be determined by party members and unions suggesting a soft-left candidate might prove more appealing. Lisa Nandy might be the frontrunner.
More dangerously, any contest will pull the leadership left since activists are always more hardline than voters. The first question to candidates might be whether the new leader would readmit Jeremy Corbyn to the parliamentary party. Tories will have fun with this. It is true that a contest might throw up a more dangerous leader. Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s former chief strategist, regards a northern woman like Nandy as a potential threat. But equally, it might not.
A third option is the police find Starmer in breach but decide not to issue fines since their position is against retrospective action. (Though this was also the Met’s position once.) Starmer has not pledged to go under these circumstances, so the Tories may be able to claim a wash.
But suddenly Johnson’s allies also find themselves in a spot too. Their gambit has worked perhaps too well. They may well be laughing at Starmer’s plight. The so-called beergate saga was a valuable distraction in the bid to save Johnson’s leadership. The thought that lockdown breaches could do for their opponent rather than them will fill them with mirth.
Yet they also can see the risk. If, after a few uncomfortable weeks Starmer emerges in the clear, he will be enhanced in reputation. The Labour leader has struggled for definition with voters: this could deliver it and turn up the pressure on Johnson. It is not a gamble Starmer wanted to take — ultimately he had little choice — but if it pays off there could yet be a silk purse to be made of this political pig’s ear.
So this could spell the end, but the risk is less great than it first appears. Even so he will have some uneasy nights as he ponders the Durham police officers who now hold his fate in their hands.