Keir Starmer has rarely before caused a moment of intense drama in national politics. But his televised statement that he would quit if Durham police issue him with a fine for breaching Covid rules was a highly compelling moment, and an unexpected gamble for someone who colleagues sometimes refer to as “cautious Keir”.
It will have serious consequences, whatever the outcome of the investigation. If he is cleared by the police inquiry, he has drawn a moral line in the sand – one which Boris Johnson is on the wrong side of.
Contrasting his own conduct with that of the prime minister, Starmer is attempting to pitch himself as a politician that the public can rely on to tell the truth and abide by society’s rules.
If he is found by Durham police to have broken the rules and resigns, then he will be proving that the Labour party believes politicians must demonstrate accountability. Once again, the difference will be clear compared with Johnson, who has refused to resign in the face of a police Covid fine.
Johnson is still facing the prospect of potential further fines from the police. And if the prime minister was to continue to refuse to stand down despite more penalties, when Starmer had already done so for more minor breaches of rules that he did not make, then the prime minister’s position would look increasingly untenable.
The clear calculation behind Starmer’s statement is that this high-stakes move makes him look bold and will win him praise for being decisive – two qualities he is not best known for.
Some supporters of the move also believe it would have been impossible for him to do anything else when Labour MPs were being asked daily questions about his position, distracting from their focus on the prime minister’s misbehaviour.
However, there is a counterargument. Some Labour insiders were incredulous that he would even talk of resigning before it became necessary, worrying that it would cause people to start writing him off too early.
There are also concerns that it leaves Starmer in a difficult position if Durham police fudge their findings, as they did with former No 10 aide Dominic Cummings. If they issue a statement saying he may have broken the rules, but it is too historic to issue a fine, then Starmer will come under pressure to abide by the spirit of his statement.
In the event that Starmer’s gamble backfires, ending in his resignation, it is not clear who else will benefit. Starmer’s strongest supporters will be devastated to see the departure of someone they believe was rebuilding Labour’s support after a catastrophic 2019 election result and dealing with the antisemitism problem that had dogged the party.
But others in Labour will be pleased: both those wishing for a more charismatic leader – perhaps Wes Streeting or Lisa Nandy – and those who resent his decision to move Labour’s policies away from the Corbyn era.
Equally, several Tory MPs said on Monday that they felt No 10 and Conservative party headquarters should be careful what they wished for. They would claim a scalp if Starmer were to go, but some Conservatives said they were fearful he could be replaced by someone punchier, with even further distance from Corbyn’s tenure.
The move would also only serve to pile pressure on Johnson to take a similar course, though he is far from susceptible to feeling the need to emulate others in doing the right thing.
Starmer’s team clearly believe this is an unlikely outcome, and are presenting evidence to Durham police that they say will prove he and his team did nothing wrong.
The force now knows the fate of the Labour leader and his deputy is in its hands, which may make officers think twice before issuing either of them with a fine. So far, all the political pressure has come from a handful of Tory MPs and the Daily Mail demanding that they act.
With the potential for further fines for Johnson in the coming days, and more clear-cut evidence of partying in No 10 than took place in Durham, the heat is still on the prime minister – for now.