One of the reasons the row isn’t fading about Tory sleaze allegations and the Prime Minister’s conduct is that there are so many different facets to it. Each row has its own faction within the Conservative party and indeed within No. 10, and so far there is scant evidence that any of these factions are backing down.
While the stories are now front-page news, it is also the case that allegations about special treatment for friends and donors have been bubbling away for a year now. This is causing some satisfaction to some of those around Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who were pushing for the Opposition to focus on these issues when they seemed quite niche and others felt it would be a waste of Starmer’s time. Some aides argued last summer that the sleaze would eventually cut through to the voters, pointing to the row back then about Robert Jenrick’s involvement in the Westferry development and the questions about who paid for Boris Johnson’s holiday to Mustique. They were also keen to push the party to make the awarding of PPE contracts more of an issue, and worked with shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves over a period of months to build a campaign.
Reeves was clearly cashing in that work when she took part in the urgent question on the ministerial code in the Commons yesterday. But Labour isn’t likely to benefit from this story politically just yet. The local and devolved elections, as well as the Hartlepool by-election, are going to be a grim time for the party and Starmer’s team have been warning MPs and advisers that they’ll need to keep holding their nerve. Their calculation is that as long as Johnson is Prime Minister, sleaze will be a rich seam to mine – and one that eventually benefits the party electorally.
Other senior figures in the party are uncomfortable with this reactive strategy, though, arguing that Labour should be leading the debate on how the country will look after the pandemic. Frontbenchers are privately worried that Starmer is too easily batted around by rows on social media, and that these can lead him to take positions that in the short term seem popular but in the long term are problematic, such as the party’s decision to oppose legislation on protest, sentencing and policing. Both sides of this argument accept that the party needs to earn a right to be heard again, but disagree on how it can manage that.