#Partygate and #Beergate continue to rumble on. In latest developments, Labour leader Keir Starmer has said that he will resign if he is issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice fine for breeching covid regulations. His supporters have suggested that this shows integrity and compares unfavourably with the way that the Prime Minister has refused to resign having received a fine and being expected to receive multiple FPNs relating to events in Downing Street.
I’m not sure that we can conclude that Starmer’s words are a great example of integrity. Now to be clear, I’m not arguing that he wasn’t seeking to show integrity -that his own motives were well intentioned. However, we cannot simply draw the conclusion from his actions here. Here’s why. First of all, it took several days for Starmer to make the announcement. It looks from the outside as though he is responding to pressure and seeking to get ahead of the news-cycle. Secondly, whilst this on the surface appears to be in direct contrast with the Prime Minister’s response to his own legal difficulties, it is worth remembering that Sir Keir called for Johnson’s resignation not upon the Prime Minister being fined but in response to police investigations commencing. Starmer considered it unthinkable that a sitting prime minister could be investigated and questioned under caution. So people might be entitled to ask whether he can continue in office whilst under investigation himself.
Thirdly, the leader of the opposition has responded to the allegations against himself in pretty much the same way that the Prime Minister did. He has insisted that there was no breach of the rules and offered the defence/reasonable excuse that the curry and drinks were a brief interlude as part of a normal working day. This doesn’t look good. Whether or not you or I agreed with the specific rules at the time, we can recognise that the intent of the rules was not to prevent people enjoying themselves but to minimise social contact and close interaction in order to attempt to prevent the spread of COVID. We may think that the rules were silly, that they were not needed by that stage and that they didn’t work anyway but we can clearly grasp the intent and spirit of the rules. That’s why attempts by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to focus on technical legal distinctions and to find loopholes are not great.
Fourthly, whilst saying that you’ll resign if fined may look like a principled statement of integrity, there is a risk that it will put undue pressure on the police. You see, the police are (or should be) wary of doing anything that could be seen to interfere unduly in the political process. That’s why they are cautious about investigating politicians and why the announcement to investigate senior Labour figures was held off until after the local elections and why the Met put a pause on issuing FPNS during the campaign as well. Now put yourself in the shoes of the officer(s) responsible for deciding whether or not to issue fines. They now know that issuing fines could have a substantial impact on the political process, both the Leader of the opposition and his deputy have said they will resign. This could significantly shape the political future of the country. Would you want to be the person who made that call? It’s worth noting as well that Durham Police are not particularly minded to issue fines retrospectively and so there is a good chance that even if they reprimand Labour that they won’t issue them. If that happens then it will appear to many as though Sir Keir survived on a technicality.
Now, my concern throughout this has been that the way the whole thing has been handled has risked the politicisation of the police. I don’t think that Tory politicians or the right wing media come out of this particularly well. It does seem that they’ve been rather keen to pressurise Durham police and this does look like it is a tit for tat response to pressure being put on the Met regarding the Downing Street parties.
My argument has been that retrospective investigations like this are not really fitting for determining fixed penalty fines. For that reason, I think that the leader of the opposition has dug himself an unnecessary trap to fall into. Because strict liability laws like the COVID rules don’t really tell us anything about the intent and therefore the moral character of those who receive them, I’m not convinced that resignations were necessary for individual cases. Yet Sir Keir has placed the Downing Street parties at the centre of a sustained attack on Boris. In my opinion, he would have done better to allow any investigations to run their course. What we already know from the Sue Gray report is that it is pretty damning of the culture and the attitude to rules and the law within Johnson’s Downing Street. If I were leader of the opposition I would have allowed all the evidence to come in and then attacked on what it showed about the overall culture of government and the attitude of the Prime Minister. I think that this would have fitted with the wider and longer term impression many of us have of Boris Johnson.
Additionally, I think that Sir Keir would that way have avoided seeming legalistic. It would not have been too hard for him to recognise that no one is perfect and that there may well have been occasional lapses. He could have got onto the front foot about #Beergate by acknowledging that there were decisions his team made in the midst of the pandemic where they were confident they were acting within the rules but recognise that the police may have drawn a different conclusion at the time. He could have distinguished such individual judgements from an overall pattern of behaviour and attitude. To be honest, I think most people would have got that. In fact, it would have made Starmer more relatable and reduced the image of a slick/clever lawyer which I think he suffers from.
What then are the lessons for us as Christians? I think there are some important ones to learn. One obvious lesson is about the risk of attempting to judge the heart and intent of others. It’s only God who can truly see into the hearts and minds of others. As I’ve said above, I don’t think we can conclude from his actions and words that Sir Keir Starmer was acting with integrity. But nor can I really judge his heart motives. It is still possible that he genuinely believes that he is pursuing the only honourable course of action. However, I think the main lesson is this.
True integrity needs grace.
What I mean by this is that if there is no grace, no hope of atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration then we are always likely to feel the pressure to approach sin and failure from a legalistic point of view. We’ll subject others to harsh standards whilst seeking to find excuses for our own behaviour. We’ll look for ways around and ways out of situations that are based on technicalities. Grace and grace alone will enable me to act with true integrity and to avoid hypocrisy. This is because it is grace that enables me to be open and transparent about my own failings.
Grace isn’t really available to politicians. However, it should be central to our lives as part of the church.