Patrick O'Flynn

Starmer will struggle to capitalise on this sleaze row

Starmer will struggle to capitalise on this sleaze row
(Photo: Getty)
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‘You’re an accountant. You’re in a noble profession. The word “Count” is part of your title,’ the corrupt impresario Max Bialystock tells the neurotic bean-counter Leo Bloom in The Producers.

Just a few weeks ago MPs from all parties had convinced themselves of something similar as they came together to pay tribute to David Amess. MP after MP spoke movingly about how they were all in it for the best of motives and how the public realm would be better served if everyone cut out ad hominem attacks on political opponents.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner even put out an apparently heartfelt statement of regret about having described Boris Johnson’s MPs as ‘scum’ and promised to do better in future.

Well, that didn’t last long, did it? Aggro Angie is back doing what she does best – punching Tory bruises with a brutal ferocity. ‘The UK is not corrupt. Boris Johnson and his government is corrupt,’ she tweeted only yesterday. At the weekend she noted: ‘Impressive performance on Marr from George Eustice, he managed to lie so many times in such a short period of time while keeping a straight face.’

All sides are back playing the man and not the ball as a new furore over parliamentary sleaze cuts through with the public, further lowering the collective esteem in which MPs are held.

As the most culpable party, the Conservatives are the ones who have taken a hit in the polls. Boris Johnson’s outrageous conspiracy with other country house Tories to get their pal Owen Paterson off a damning standards committee verdict has deservedly blown-up in his face, dragging his party down to roughly level-pegging with Labour.

Now it is discovered that the brilliant barrister Sir Geoffrey Cox has been moonlighting as an MP, though seldom to the extent of allowing his legal practice to be compromised. Other Tory MPs are being exposed daily for dodgy-sounding, lucrative side hustles. Johnson is seen as running and hiding rather than confronting the mess he created and his persona as a people’s champion against the elite has been severely dented.

Labour has hardly got away scot free, with Keir Starmer’s own available-for-hire approach towards outside earnings before he became party leader also picked over, while the long line of erstwhile Labour MPs convicted of serious crimes – with Claudia Webbe just the most recent – has also been highlighted by media figures.

Where is it all heading, MPs are wondering? Is this going to run and run like the Commons expenses scandal of 2009, still remembered for its duck houses and moats? The then opposition leader David Cameron contained the damage to his own party by ruthlessly chucking shipmates overboard, only himself to be exposed over his post-prime ministerial lobbying earlier this year.

Nobody can be quite sure what impact these scandals will have with the public. But broadly speaking there are two key questions, the first being: is this going to see an upsurge of public cynicism about politics and politicians in general?

Probably yes. The electorate is grumpy after the privations of Covid and voters on both the left and the right are hardly swooning about their respective champions: Johnson’s performance on issues such as tax, the cost of living, illegal immigration and net zero infuriates the right, while Starmer’s inability to connect irks the left. So everyone should expect a bumpy ride.

An important question now is whether these events will lead to a decisive shift in the terms of trade between the major parties. As we have seen, the Tory rating has taken a short-term hit, but in my assessment the answer to this question is that it probably won’t. The values breach between the 2019 Tory voting coalition and the modern Labour party is simply too wide for direct switching to become a big thing.

Starmer is no Blair, either in terms of campaigning verve or readiness to confront the unmarketable items within his own party’s articles of faith. An inclination for open borders, identity politics grievance-mongering and trashing Britain’s heritage and history – as well as Labour’s record on Brexit and stewarding the public finances – are all hugely off-putting to normal people outside its core support.

A plague on both their houses, and indeed both Houses of Parliament, is what Johnson and Starmer can expect from voters over the next year or two. As Bialystock goes on to demand of Bloom: ‘Then account for yourself. Do you believe in God, do you believe in gold; why are you looking up old ladies’ dresses?’

So Tory MPs will have to get used to tighter polls, but there is no sign of a Labour surge remotely powerful enough to sweep the party to victory, even if Johnson proves unable to rekindle his love affair with the electorate.

In this perennial story of government and opposition we are moving into a phase where a resistible force confronts a moveable object and political history tells us even a flawed and degraded incumbent tends to prevail in such circumstances.