Boris Johnson has the priceless ability, with the help of the conservative press, to make other people’s smoke hide the flames in his own house. The Labor leader Keir Starmer, who just last Thursday celebrated the serious defeat of the Conservative Party in the municipal elections in the United Kingdom, has given in to pressure on Monday. He has promised that he will resign if he is fined by the police for flouting social distancing rules during lockdown.
When the scandal of partygatethe banned parties in Downing Street with food and alcohol, managed to put Johnson’s political career on the brink, the conservative tabloid The Sun published a photo in which, through the glass of a window, the silhouette of Starmer with a beer in his hand seemed to be glimpsed. It was April 30, 2021. Labor was campaigning for a vacant MP seat in the Durham constituency. The embarrassment caused by the dimension of what was denounced at the Government headquarters – where the parties had multiplied, with the presence of the Prime Minister and his wife at several of them – reduced Starmer’s photo to a desperate, almost ridiculous attempt, from conservatives for diverting attention. The Labor leader felt strong in demanding Johnson’s resignation for having lied to Parliament, and repeatedly accusing him of having denigrated the post with his behaviour.
Johnson, aware of that universal rule by which ‘he who resists, wins’, clung to the chair against all odds. He endured the downpour of the report by senior official Sue Gray, who accused the prime minister of not having exercised the necessary ethical leadership during the pandemic. He stood with a wall in the face of rebellion attempts by Conservative MPs, fearful that voters would take Johnson’s excesses from them. And he kept going after Scotland Yard fined him, along with many of his collaborators, for breaking confinement rules.
The beer scandal
Johnson held on, and his deputies, along with the tabloid newspapers, insisted on putting pressure on the Durham police to investigate what they themselves had dubbed beer gate (the beer scandal), with a resonance that almost distilled a whiff of classism (Labour’s beer versus Conservative wine). They added new information that managed to dismantle the excuses offered by Starmer’s team. The meal lasted several hours. Up to 30 people joined her (everything suggests that it was more like 15). It was Indian food: curry. It was not a work stoppage, they said. Starmer returned to his hotel soon after. It was something planned, and not simply the provisioning in the middle of a workday that social distancing rules allowed. “After the relevant information obtained these days, the Durham police station has revised its initial decision [de descartar una investigación] and, after the electoral period [las elecciones municipales del jueves]we confirm the opening of proceedings, before possible infractions of the rules of confinement”, the police finally admitted in a statement, to avoid any accusation of double standards.
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The problem with the trap – unless the police conclude that Starmer did indeed break the law – is that the Labor leader has already left enough enemies behind, and his defenders are not lavish. Starting with the Government and the Conservatives, keen to hide their electoral defeat on Thursday and accuse the opposition leader of hypocrisy; continuing with the faction of the party close to the previous leader, the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, who does not forgive Starmer for the way he marginalized him in the parliamentary group, and now demands that he be consistent with his words, and resign; and concluding with an electorate still lukewarm before the figure of the leader of the opposition, and convinced that all politicians are the same.
Double or nothing
Starmer has spent the entire weekend debating with his team what the response should be to an issue that threatened to dilute all the gains from Thursday’s election victory, and drag -fairly or unfairly- the Labor leader into the same mire in the that Johnson has been submerged for a few months now. “I believe in honor, in integrity and in the principle according to which those who make the laws are the first obliged to comply with them,” said the left-wing politician this Monday in a public appearance from the party’s headquarters.
“I think politicians who undermine that principle, undermine trust in politics, our democracy and the UK itself.” He again has assured that he did not break any rules, and that he limited himself to eating something with his family late in the afternoon in the middle of an electoral campaign. But he has decided that it was necessary to launch an ordeal that would raise the bar for his rival, the prime minister. “If the police decide to fine me, I will do the right thing and resign. British citizens deserve politicians who play by the rules, hold themselves to the highest standards and put the country ahead of themselves. You will always find that attitude in me,” said Starmer.
The lawyer and former state attorney general turned opposition leader has managed to convey an image of seriousness and order – also bored, soft and indecisive, for his critics – that contrasts with the chaos that has sometimes surrounded Johnson. But his play is risky. If the police decide to fine him, even for the minimum, his political career will be over. And even if he does not, the matter has already benefited Johnson, by conveying to the public the idea that the confinement lasted a long time, the working hours were very long, and no one is in a position to throw the first stone.