©UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Week-in-Review: History will remember Keir Starmer’s role in Johnson’s downfall

“The Ministerial Code says — and I quote — ‘ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation’. … I’ll leave it there, for now.”

Even on 28 April 2021, when Keir Starmer uttered these words to a near-empty House of Commons chamber, his despatch box clad in perspex, there was a distinct feeling something significant had happened. Prime minister’s questions during the pandemic era was a quiet, almost cosy affair. But Starmer’s ominous appeal on the Ministerial Code drew a sharp gasp from the masked few on the green benches.

In some senses, the line characterised the Labour leader’s consciously calm and deliberately dignified approach to PMQs. He scarcely veered from his strict script under Johnson: project competence and trust that self-contained professionalism might contrast reassuring with Johnsonian bluster.

Moreover, this particular exchange was pre-“Partygate” and mid-vaccine rollout. It means Johnson was at the peak of his powers as Sir Keir cross-examined the PM’s purported insistence that he’d rather let “bodies pile high” than implement another lockdown. 

Johnson’s tone of defiance was also typical of what was to come. “No, Mr Speaker”, he vented in response, “and the Right Honourable gentleman is a lawyer …. I think that if he’s going to repeat allegations like that, he should come to this House and substantiate those allegations”.

“Somebody here isn’t telling the truth”, Starmer retorted cooly. The Labour leader pressed ahead, leaving the Ministerial Code to one side — “for now”. 

Still, in April 2021 Sir Keir’s patient probing was far from cutting through with the voting public. According to Politico’s “Poll of Polls” metric, Johnson led Starmer by seven points on 28 April — and just nine days after this exchange, Sir Keir went on to lose the Hartlepool by-election with a 23-point swing away from his party. Labour had been ransacked once more in its heartlands. It begged the question: could the Remainian lawyer cross-examine his way through the so-called “vaccine bounce”?

For Johnson of course, Starmer’s knightly naysaying was peak “Sir Crasheroonie Snoozefest”. He characterised the Labour leader as a “permanent spectator”, “captain hindsight” and “a lawyer, not a leader”. The vaccine rollout was validating Johnson’s most politically potent psychological flaw: his feeling of invincibility. 

But in a strained sense, Johnson was right. Sir Keir’s criticism without solution could easily be chalked up to shifty managerialism; and, as the Hartlepool result showed, Johnson maintained his electoral appeal in historically unlikely areas. But was the public Sir Keir’s intended audience at this time? Or was it those fastidious Hansard scribblers, recording word-for-word Johnson’s utterances in the House for posterity?

A generous view of Sir Keir circa April 2021 was that he was biding his time. He did not let the fog of political fury blind his focus, there was no fit of pique which characterised Jeremy Corbyn’s PMQs style. (That is despite Starmer having since insisted he “loathes” the former PM). In hindsight, it seems his performance was not only about exuding competence — but storing up a political windfall as the government’s self-professed pandemic stolidity slowly, perhaps inevitably, crumbled. Was “Captain hindsight” really “Admiral foresight”?

The Lawyer versus the liar

The first instance of Johnson lying to the House of Commons, recorded by the privileges committee report, was on 1 December 2021. The Daily Mirror had led that morning with the searing scoop: “Boris Party Broke Covid Rules”, referring to a Christmas party in Downing Street the previous year while millions were locked down. With lawyerly attentiveness, Starmer proceeded to read out the set of “very clear” rules in place during December 2020, including “you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party”. 

Johnson’s response was as defiant as ever: “What I can tell the right honourable gentleman is that all guidance was followed completely in No 10”, he insisted.

A week later, again pressed by Starmer, Johnson was forced to walk back this initial denial. “I am sickened myself and furious about that”, he said, “but I repeat what I have said to him: I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken”. That morning, ITV had published a video showing a mock press conference, filmed on 22 December 2020, where then-press secretary Allegra Stratton joked about Downing Street gatherings.

Those statements from December 1st and 8th — one outright denial, one ignorant plea — were central to the privileges committee’s case that Johnson had knowingly and recklessly misled the House. Indeed, the report concludes that on top of these initial transgressions, Johnson had been “disingenuous with the committee in ways which amount to misleading” when challenged by the cross-party group on such statements.

In total, the privileges committee cites 34 key occasions when Johnson spoke in the commons on the matter of Covid compliance in No 10. In these, he was prompted by inquirers as diverse as Ian Blackford, Catherine West, Sir Ed Davey, Theresa May, Sir Robert Buckland and Colum Eastwood. But leading the way in the line of questioning was Starmer on 10/34. A year ahead of time, the Labour leader had done the privileges committee’s heavy lifting for them.

Historicising ‘Partygate’

The history Johnson wants to write of the privilege committee investigation — for which he will be provided ample column inches by the Daily Mail is that of a “witch hunt” and a “political assassination”.

But as Johnson lurches for the Trumpian thesaurus, majoring on the role of Harriett Harman as privileges committee Chair, soberer chroniclers will proffer another perspective. (In any case, Johnson’s emphasis on Harman as his primary partygate antagonist is probably a ploy to silence Starmer’s role in his downfall. The former PM will want to give Sir Keir no credit).

The privileges committee’s account — due to be endorsed by MPs on Monday — ultimately tells a tale of prime ministerial deceit delivered mindfully at the commons despatch box.

In this way, amid the twists and turns of the partygate saga, Starmer might easily be dismissed as a side character. Commentators still deem the Labour leader “lucky” as he readily receives the political windfall from a scandal he supposedly had no agency in. 

Of course, the primary individual responsible for Johnson’s downfall is Johnson himself — of that there can be no doubt. But Starmer’s cross-examinations, which elicited the responses recorded by the privileges committee, means partygate is not solely a story of self-destruction. Johnson’s downfall is equally a tale of political victory for his bête noire, Keir Starmer: a flawed PM exposed by a forensic lawyer. 

In fact, the way Sir Keir treated partygate was, in some senses, an authoritative lesson in how to operate as LOTO at a time of national and political crisis. It means no one can mindfully claim, as Johnson once did, that Starmer is destined to be a “permanent spectator”. 

We can only wonder if Sir Keir will be as good at answering the questions as he was at asking them.