As Keir Starmer faces an investigation over a potential breach of lockdown rules, Laurie Wilcockson assesses the unlikely scenario that he does receive a fine.
I really like Keir Starmer. He’s a thoroughly decent man, with honour and principles I believe in. If he were Prime Minister I have no doubt the UK would be a better place. But Labour is in a position it hasn’t been in for years: it has a whole host of new, valuable assets who, on the platform Starmer has built, could propel Labour to a huge victory in 2024. So, if he did get a fine and had to resign, and there is very little reason to think that he would, it would not be the end of the world. Because for Labour it would overall still be in a good place.
If Starmer was fined and resigned, Johnson would have to explain why he hadn’t. That would be a great look on TV. Especially every morning for the following fortnight when Conor Burns, Nadine Dorries and Dominic Raab all have to do the media rounds and pull faces at journalists, insisting ‘but we have to get on with the job’. They’d have to squirm, and all for the sake of the aristocratic cloud of dandruff in No10.
Starmer wouldn’t look bad for resigning either. His alleged offence appears to have been campaigning late at night: if he is fined for that while Carrie gets away with organising an ABBA party, there will be plenty in the electorate who’ll think he need not resign, and respect him all the more for doing so. Hence if he did, he could well go down in modern memory like a Neil Kinnock or an Ernest Bevin: a man who should’ve, would’ve been Prime Minister. It is impossible to imagine, they will all say, what could have happened if Starmer had stayed on.
For Labour, they would then be under pressure to select a new leader, and that would not necessarily be all that difficult a task. There are plenty of frontrunners, for sure: The Blair-Brown-style duo of Wes Streeting and Peter Kyle would obviously be the main candidacy, but Lisa Nandy and Bridget Phillipson would also be very worthy, major players in the race for the soft left vote – and the fact that Labour still has not had a female leader despite always having female candidates continues to hang heavy over the membership’s heads. They are only held back by the fact Nandy is very unpopular amongst the left, and Phillipson hasn’t had the time to show herself to the electorate in the way Streeting has.
Of course, the main worry would be a resurgence of the Corbynite faction, falsely called ‘the Left of the Party’ (I count myself as on the left of the party. But I’d still rather win elections than “the argument”). Would Rebecca Long-Bailey give it another shot perhaps? A more serious contender would be Angela Rayner, although that depends on her having not been fined as well and even if she did, she is increasingly becoming more popular across the electorate. Most other Corbynite candidates would likely struggle to win over enough parliamentary support. Clive Lewis would be a very present threat, with the promise of electoral reform and a progressive alliance, but would that be the end of the world? He’s radical, but he’s still a respectable politician. Plenty of other candidates, like David Lammy, Rosena Allin-Khan, Chris Bryant and Yvette Cooper, would also be very capable of running for the role.
Ultimately, it comes down to the membership. If the decision of the membership is to swing behind someone electable, if not all that radical, Streeting or Nandy wins. Otherwise, it may well be that one of them faces off against someone less New Labour and the membership votes for whoever that may be. In either situation, the responsibility of the Parliamentary Party is to make sure that fringe candidates are not given the capacity to emerge as frontrunners. Plenty of contenders, however, would have much more of a media presence than Starmer, and that may well be exactly what Labour needs to push itself over the line at the next election. Starmer is a brilliant speaker in the house, but he does not have the bullishness of the likes of Streeting, Nandy and Bryant when facing the media, and his cut through as a ‘man of the people’, despite his very real credentials, has been very limited.
This hypothetical new leader would enter a political battlefield where the Conservative leader is a liar and a criminal. While Labour will have had their leader honourably resign for a lesser, disputable offence, the Conservatives will be regularly appearing on our screens reminding us that there is one rule for us, and no rules for them.
Johnson’s brand has permanently been tarnished. Not for breaking the rules, either. Plenty of people did bend the rules, enough at least for the diehard Conservative voters to keep their votes where they are. Where he went wrong was a) blatantly lying to the public and b) the fact that he seriously thought he could claim that drinking cheese and wine in his massive garden with his wife and child constitutes a work meeting. The offensiveness to expect industrial, working-class voters in the Red Wall to see him claiming that that was work and still believe he understands working people is off the scale.
If Keir Starmer got fined, it would be fatal for his prime ministerial ambitions. And in all likelihood, especially if Johnson got off with only one fine, he may well be exonerated yet. But for the rest of us, his martyrdom would still be a great demonstration of Labour’s integrity. A Tory-media hit-job, deemed by its spinsters the most successful in history, could well platform Labour into becoming the most dangerous it has been since before the financial crash. Johnson would forever be the crook prime minister who would neither jump nor be pushed. Starmer would be the next ‘best PM we never had’. And some lucky Labour upstart would be very eagerly awaiting the next General Election.
Laurie Wilcockson is a History student at the University of Cambridge. He was formerly Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Cambridge Student, and is an occasional contributor to East Anglia Bylines. He grew up in rural Norfolk, and discovered a passion for political journalism when he found himself at the wrong end of the 2020 A Level Algorithm Fiasco, and had to fight for his place at university. He tweets at @LaurieWilcocks1.