12 May 2022
By John Watson
Some things only get even more tedious and the focus on whether politicians have or have not broken the covid regulations seems to be one of them. This time of course it is Sir Keir who is threatened with a penalty notice in connection with an Indian meal with colleagues when working late. Was it work or a party? That is the question and the body responsible for answering that question is the Durham police. Meanwhile Sir Keir has upped the ante by saying that if he receives a notice he will resign.
What twaddle all this is. To begin with Sir Keir denies any breach of the rules. I expect that he is right but in that case surely the answer to a notice, wrongly issued, should be an appeal not a resignation. Sir Keir must be very confident indeed of his position.
But supposing it all went pear-shaped and, despite Sir Keir’s expectations, a notice, and possibly an incorrect notice at that, was issued to him. Would it really be right for him to resign? Should the public really be deprived of the services of a politician who might otherwise go on to be Prime Minister? Surely it rather depends upon the circumstances.
If it was shown that the Indian meal was part of a deliberate plot to break the regulations or was so cavalier that the regulations were clearly held in contempt, then one can see that Starmer’s position might be untenable, not least because of the calls he has made for Boris to resign over partygate. But it wouldn’t be like that, would it? At the worst it would be some unintended breach either stemming from a misunderstanding of the regulations or because a work meeting somehow slid over the boundary into a few minutes of relaxation. Is that really so serious?
I forget which conservative politician incurred the wrath of the media by comparing a breach of the regulations with a breach of the traffic laws. That was no doubt inappropriate where one was speaking of a major Downing Street bash but where the breach is unintentional the comparison has something to it. All, and I mean all, of those readers who drive will know that sinking feeling when you look at the speedometer and realise that it shows a reading in excess of the speed limit. Oops, your attention must have wandered. Clearly it was a mistake to think about that disagreement with your family which has been upsetting you but that isn’t really an excuse. Get your mind back on the road and take the foot off the gas. Whew, no blue light in the mirror. It seems that no harm has been done and the only lesson is to keep more of an eye on the speedometer.
Now turn to the Covid regulations and the advice that went with them. Did you break that 2 metre rule when chatting to a friend? Did someone who came to your house for work stay on for a beer? Did you go somewhere you shouldn’t have without a mask or meet a friend in the street and forget that they were outside your bubble? Over the lengthy period of this pandemic most of us will have done one or other of these things and gone, at least inadvertently, into breach. And how, when we realised that we had done, should we have reacted? By some form of snivelling self-abasement and a letter to the authorities offering to pay a fine or, like our motorist, with the simple resolution to be more carefully in future? Well, most of us have been there one time or another, and the letters of confession to the authorities are a little thin on the ground. The public has done well in its compliance with the rules as a whole but there cannot be many of us who can claim to have been perfect throughout. That, I am afraid, is because we are human.
Politicians are human too and it would be quite absurd for Sir Keir, who is I am sure a careful and law-abiding man, to resign if it was shown that some aspect of the regulations had been inadvertently breached. So why has he taken such a ridiculous position? The answer presumably is pure politics. His enemies in the party (to many of whom the word “human” can only be applied in the most literal sense) would like to see him gone and would use any breach of the regulations, whether inadvertent or not, to achieve that objective. So by declaring that he would go anyway he does not worsen his position; also it improves his leverage in criticising Johnson for whom breaches are clearly more serious because it was his government that introduced the regulations.
That may be an understandable political posture but I doubt if the public will warm to it. Giving “holier than thou” undertakings in order to make your opponent look venal has something a little pharisaical about it and I really doubt whether the voters will find it attractive. As always the man or woman in the street is a more decent and balanced individual than those in the Westminster bubble give them credit for.