Keir Starmer may well look back on the past two weeks and feel hard done by. His underwhelming PMQs performance last Wednesday was widely panned, with commentators from across the political spectrum accusing him of failing to land a punch against a Prime Minister on the ropes following his no confidence vote. That criticism was followed by a succession of pointed digs from within his own party, as several Labour frontbenchers briefed that he needed to inject some fresh energy into his public appearances. “Stop boring everyone to death, shadow cabinet tells Starmer” read the Times’ headline.
This Wednesday, Starmer returned to the Chamber hellbent on proving that far from being ‘boring’, he’s actually a pretty fun guy, someone with a finger on the pulse of all that is trendy and modish. He did this through a reference to Obi Wan-Kenobi (first screen appearance: 1977), followed by a Love Island gag that had clearly been painstakingly handwritten for him by a twenty-something LOTO staffer. “Tortured Star Wars gags fail to free Starmer from boredom paradox” ran the Guardian’s headline.
Starmer’s acolytes would quite reasonably argue that being ‘boring’ is hardly a cardinal sin for a Prime Minister-elect to commit. His opposite number is a man who, despite rarely being accused of dullness, has lost the support of some of his party and vast swathes of the country for being a proven peddler of mistruths, presiding over a Number 10 which exists as a PR machine first and foremost. Boris Johnson’s leadership has never been boring: each week a fresh blunder, minor scandal or divisive policy is manufactured and broadcast in a calculated effort to distract from the latest scandal. This is anathema to Starmer’s style: he has set his stall out as a dependable figure who has time for the substance of politics, someone with a focus on delivering and with a commitment to standards in public life that has earned him the nickname Mr Rules. None of this is very interesting, but it might yet prove to be a winning contrast with Boris’s charismatic yet chaotic approach. Starmer perhaps should embrace the accusations that he is boring: five long, dull years, free of pandemics, wars or other generational crises, with a dependable if slightly boring leader at the helm, could be a surprisingly effective pitch to the British public.
Whilst Starmer’s advisors may be wise to convince him that his blandness can be spun into a virtue, they should be more cautious around the ‘Mr Rules’ approach. Keir’s credentials as Director of Public Prosecutions, combined with his very genuine commitment to values such as honesty and decency, mean that it is tempting to paint him in juxtaposition to the unscrupulous Johnson. Initially, Starmer and his team looked to do exactly that: they went overboard on partygate, just as they did throughout the Owen Paterson affair, missing no opportunity to stick the boot into the sleaze-ridden Tories. Yet one grainy picture of Starmer sipping a San Miguel in a hotel room later, the flaw in this strategy was exposed: running on a platform of being ‘scandal free’ is unbelievably easy for your opponents to attack. Whether or not you have actually broken any rules is immaterial. Even the remotest hint of controversy is enough for the opposition to accuse you of hypocrisy – a crime which rankles with the general public far more than a straightforward, unapologetic breach of the rules.
Starmer’s whiter-than-white approach took another hit this week with the news that he will be investigated due to late declarations of gifts, in the form of hospitality at two Premier League football matches. The free tickets were perfectly above board, but Starmer has been flagged offside for being late to declare them on his register of interests. A minor transgression, resulting from an administrative slip-up from his staff rather than any error of judgement from Starmer, yet this detail will be lost on the average voter. The headlines and the top lines pushed on Tory Whatsapp groups will simply read: Labour leader investigated by the Parliamentary Standards Committee. Regardless of the fact that Boris Johnson has seen off his second ethics advisor in less than three years in office: for Labour to take the moral high ground relies on their own house being completely with order, their own ethical behaviour wholly beyond reproach. As they are learning, that is almost impossible to guarantee.
The pledge to resign if fined by Durham Police has taken Starmer’s fate even further out of his hands. By gambling all of his political capital on the perception of himself as a law-abiding figure with impeccable ethical standards, Starmer has ensured that he will be under the utmost scrutiny for the rest of his political career. No element of his public or private life will be deemed out of bounds, no technical breach of the rules deemed too petty, no benefit of the doubt given to him whatsoever. Every tax return, email, handwritten memo, every person he has ever stood on stage alongside and every letter he has sent, will be pored over by opposition and media alike for even the faintest hint of a skeleton in the closet. God help him if they find anything.