Voices: Keir Starmer should shrug off the Tory ‘beer smear’ over his lockdown double standards

·4-min read
The Labour leader was seen drinking a beer with party workers during Covid restrictions (PA) (PA Wire)
The Labour leader was seen drinking a beer with party workers during Covid restrictions (PA) (PA Wire)

Keir Starmer was asking for trouble when he claimed there was “absolutely no comparison” between his lockdown work-break and the prime minister’s.

For most people, the Labour leader’s protest that “we were very busy” working on the local election campaign last year sounded strikingly similar to Boris Johnson’s defence. The prime minister insisted that he and his officials were working very hard and only ever paused for a moment for him to say a few words of thanks, or to be ambushed with a cake.

So Labour can complain, but they cannot be surprised that the Conservatives are running a campaign to portray Starmer as a hypocrite, or that it should have featured on the front page of the Daily Mail for three days running. Starmer’s best response would be not to argue the point, but to change the subject – and leave the record to speak for itself.

In all the complexity of which law applied where and when, Starmer is fortunate that the Metropolitan Police, advised by the Crown Prosecution Service, concluded that Johnson’s birthday cake broke the law and that the Durham force came to a different conclusion about his bottle of beer. In the end, that is all there is to it. Johnson is a law-breaker and Starmer is not.

The only people who care about the unfairness of that distinction are committed Conservatives – and many of them don’t have much time for the prime minister anyway, because they thought he should never have legislated for lockdowns in the first place. The Daily Mail’s headlines may reinforce the views of readers who never liked Starmer, but I doubt if they have much effect on floating voters.

The damage inflicted by politicians’ lockdown law-breaking has already happened, and it has been sustained by Boris Johnson. Those voters who feel strongly about it will continue to do so if they lost relatives during lockdown and weren’t allowed to see them. For others, the effect will fade. Barnard Castle still comes up occasionally in focus groups, but I thought Johnson would pay a higher price than he did for failing to sack Dominic Cummings for his lockdown breaches.

There may be more penalty notices to come for Johnson, but they are unlikely to inflict further damage, as opposed to reminding people for a few days of the damage already done. I suspect that the effect of the eventual publication of Sue Gray’s report will be similar. People have already decided what they think of the prime minister presiding over law-breaking in Downing Street. And whatever the view floating voters have of the saga, Keir Starmer doesn’t feature in it. That is good and bad news for Labour.

I know of focus-group research carried out the other day in a Midlands city containing a lot of marginal Tory seats. The group consisted of people who had voted Labour since 2005 but who voted Tory in 2019. They were spontaneously and viscerally angry about lockdown parties but were blank when asked what they thought of Starmer.

The convenor of the group said he has “yet to meet a single floating voter able to muster an iota of enthusiasm for him”. Remarkably, older voters mentioned David Miliband as the party’s great missed opportunity, which only goes to show that when a party takes a wrong turning, it can take a long time to get back on the right road.

Starmer has more to worry about than partisan Tories pointing at photos of him with a bottle of beer. His problem is that most of the issues that work in his favour now will fade by the time of the next election. The anger about lockdown parties will fade. The squeeze on the cost of living is likely to ease by the summer of 2024.

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On all the issues on which opinion polls currently record unprecedented leads for Labour, sentiment is likely to turn. The current unusual view of Labour as the low-tax party, for instance, is unlikely to survive the pre-election lowering of taxes.

On crime, once everyone has done the joke about the criminal in No 10, the restoration of police numbers will at least give Johnson the chance of fighting to a score draw. Even on the NHS, on which Labour will always retain a faith-based advantage, it is possible that if the waiting-list numbers are moving in the right direction in the year before polling day, enough voters will decide that they are no more likely to be able to see a GP under a Labour government.

Starmer can afford to shrug off the Tory campaign against his lockdown double standards, but he has a long way to go before he makes as much of an impact on former Labour voters as even David Miliband.