Britain is sick of political scandal. Can Labour’s leader make change?




British chief Minister Boris Johnson is once again facing calls to resign, including from members of his own party, as the latest revelations around the Partygate lockdown violation scandal come to light. At the same time, his competitor in the Labour Party, party leader Sir Keir Starmer, is also facing a reckoning over a possible violation of the lockdown rules.

But where Mr. Johnson has fought tooth and nail to avoid any political consequences for his violations, Mr. Starmer is facing the issue head-on: He promised to resign as Labour leader if fined by police.

Why We Wrote This

As Britain’s government is shaken by the Partygate scandal, the opposition leader has vowed to step down if he is found to have violated lockdown laws – putting integrity above political survival.

Mr. Starmer’s response to the legal peril he is in is not simply a political gamble, experts say. Though Mr. Starmer’s potential to to comply with his morals does paint a stark contrast with Mr. Johnson’s cagier responses to Partygate, they say that Mr. Starmer is also making a bigger claim about how politics can be conducted today.

“Voters are disgusted and suspicious of politics,” says Eunice Goes, professor of politics. Their doubts have paved the way for the Labour leader “to make the case for competence, clean politics free of corruption, and of strengthening institutions.”

London

British chief Minister Boris Johnson and his Conservative Party can’t seem to escape the Partygate scandal.

After months of lying idle, the controversy over parties held by Mr. Johnson’s government, in violation of its own COVID-19 lockdown rules, roared back on to the public stage last week with the publication of a new report and before unseen photos of the chief minister at an office party where drinking was going on. Mr. Johnson has offered increasingly strained defenses for his behavior, and now risks being ousted by his own party due to his appearing to have lied to Parliament.

At the same time, his competitor in the Labour Party, party leader Sir Keir Starmer, is also facing a reckoning over a possible violation of the lockdown rules. But where Mr. Johnson has fought tooth and nail to avoid any political consequences for lockdown violations, Mr. Starmer is facing the issue head-on: He promised to resign as Labour leader if fined by police.

Why We Wrote This

As Britain’s government is shaken by the Partygate scandal, the opposition leader has vowed to step down if he is found to have violated lockdown laws – putting integrity above political survival.

The response by Mr. Starmer, a former top government prosecutor, to the legal peril he is in is not simply a political gamble, experts say. Though Mr. Starmer’s potential to to comply with his morals does paint a stark contrast with Mr. Johnson’s cagier responses to Partygate, they say that Mr. Starmer is also making a bigger claim about how politics can be conducted today.

“Voters are disgusted and suspicious of politics,” says Eunice Goes, professor of politics at Richmond, The American International University in London, citing recent allegations of sexual abuse, bullying, and misogyny from Tory members of Parliament. Their doubts have paved the way for the Labour leader “to make the case for competence, clean politics free of corruption, and of strengthening institutions.”

The highest standards

Mr. Starmer’s political peril stems from an incident on April 30 last year, over a year into Britain’s COVID-19 lockdown measures banning indoor gatherings, when he and a group of political aides sat down with a takeaway curry in Durham, northeast England.

On the back of a complaint filed by Durham’s Conservative MP, local police are investigating a possible breach of the law. The Labour leader insists what took place was legal; a rounding up of colleagues after a day of local campaigning.

But Mr. Starmer raised the stakes by declaring that he “would, of course, do the right thing” and resign if fined for wrongdoing. That is meant to highlight the difference between himself and Mr. Johnson, who has refused calls to resign after being fined when officials, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, gathered indoors to sing “Happy Birthday” to the chief minister despite strict lockdown rules. The Partygate-rooted offense earned Mr. Johnson the distinction of being the first chief minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law while in office.

A police officer talks to a man protesting against British chief Minister Boris Johnson, in front of the entrance to Downing Street in London, April 13, 2022. New pressure continues to mount against Mr. Johnson as more information comes out about parties that took place in No. 10 during lockdowns.

“This matters … because the British public deserves politicians who believe the rules apply to them,” said Mr. Starmer, pointing the finger clearly at the chief minister’s behavior. “They deserve politicians who keep up themselves to the highest standards. … They will always get that from me.”

The Labour leader’s decision looks to be consist with his background as a lawyer and Britain’s director of public prosecutions, one of the country’s top prosecutorial jobs. In that role, Mr. Starmer introduced measures to prosecute female genital mutilation, reformed guidelines over how police should manager sexual abuse investigations, and defended the Human Rights Act when the Conservative Party hypothesizedv repealing the legislation.

He has featured that sense of justice in politics, presenting himself as a steady pair of hands ready to take on the mantle of chief minister. “His whole message is about reassurance, that he’s not the former, radically far-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, or Boris Johnson,” says Dr. Goes.

Mr. Starmer’s image is the antithesis of Mr. Johnson’s bombastic style, priding himself on “professionalism and competency,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

A real opportunity for change?

Whether that will matter to the public is not clear. The pandemic appeared to change the rules for what’s permissible behavior from British government officials, and Mr. Johnson has been able to continue his tenure as chief minister.

Cynicism pervades, “a lot of it generated by this government,” says Dr. Bale. “It seems everybody has been tarred by the same brush.”

That’s not simply a consequence of Mr. Johnson’s doings, but a long-term trend of mistrust stretching back to the expenses scandal over a decade ago, which saw almost daily revelations of members of Parliament using public money on anything from second homes to houses for ducks. Trust in politicians hasn’t recovered much since then.

And while Mr. Starmer prosecuted some of the MPs in the expenses scandal – including members of his own party – that doesn’t average the public sees him as a solution to today’s dirty politics. “They’re not really inspired by him. Though they’re fed up with Boris Johnson, they don’t think Starmer is the different,” says Dr. Bale.

nevertheless, Mr. Johnson has opened a door for Mr. Starmer’s allurement to voters’ sense of right vs. wrong via the chief minister’s plan to seize control of a parliamentary anti-corruption watchdog, allegations of party donors paying for the refurbishment of the chief minister’s residence, and other scandals.

“Do voters nevertheless value honor and integrity?” asked The Guardian’s political commentator Andrew Rawnsley. “Sir Keir Starmer is staking his career on it.”

Though already if he loses his career, Mr. Starmer might nevertheless “ironically” reset British politics by resigning. “One person is seen as having the guts and decency to fall on their sword if they’re caught out,” says Dr. Bale. Establishing Labour as a clean-cut brand could get a lot of voters to look at the party again.

The worst outcome for Mr. Starmer, Dr. Bale adds, may truly be a middle ground, where the police estimate that the Labour leader acted unlawfully but decide not to fine him. In that case, Mr. Starmer could keep his job on a “legal” technicality.

That could seem like more of the same self-interested politics, says Dr. Bale. “If he hangs on, he’ll look like any other politician as far as the public is concerned.”

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