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Angela Rayner is paying the price for Keir Starmer’s politicisation of the law

In Europe
April 18, 2024
Angela Rayner attends the launching of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan's manifesto

Angela Rayner attends the launching of Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s manifesto

About 300 thefts will be carried out in Manchester today. About 200 in the city will be the victims of violence, 100 of criminal damage or arson, and 30 of sexual offences. A fairly typical day, in other words – and that’s why more police are needed. And yet this week, we learn, no fewer than 12 officers from Greater Manchester Police have been investigating something that is hardly a danger to politics or public safety: whether Angela Rayner filled in electoral forms correctly several years ago.

This rise of politicised prosecution is one of the more depressing trends in British politics. It’s the game of gotcha that uses police as pawns, thereby draining resources that could be far better deployed. Politicians and activists accuse each other of minor legal infringements which they hope to elevate to a resignation issue. The real aim is to stir up the theatrics of an investigation, to cast their opponents as crooks. Rayner has now said that she’ll resign as Labour deputy leader if the police find against her.

I’d trace this back to the cash-for-honours scandal two decades ago, which subsumed politics in a way no one thought possible. Angus MacNeil, a crofter, had been elected SNP member for the Western Isles and was shocked to discover how many newly-created Labour peers had donated to the party. Isn’t this illegal, he asked? He found a 1925 law that said so – the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act – and called the Metropolitan Police. To everyone’s astonishment, they took it seriously.

It was the scale of the subsequent investigation that changed everything. The Met interviewed 136 people over 14 dramatic months. Dawn raids were conducted on the houses of No 10 aides and Tony Blair – who then seemed politically untouchable – became the first serving prime minister to be interviewed as part of a criminal investigation. In the end, no one was charged – but it seemed to show a new trend. When under the political spotlight, police seem to apply resources out of all proportion to the extent of the crime.

About the same time, the phone hacking scandal emerged but it was, then, small beer. A News of the World reporter was sent to jail and his editor, Andy Coulson, resigned. But to the chagrin of the information commissioner, hacking was deemed to be roughly in the same bracket as a motoring offence. When Coulson went on to serve as David Cameron’s spin doctor in No 10, he’d be a high-value political target if the hacking case could somehow be reheated. But how?

The police had been quite thorough. They had arrested hackers, taken their tapes and found thousands of targets. It was all deeply shocking, but not – they were told – illegal. The law stated that, unless police could prove in court that hackers had accessed voicemails that were new (that is, messages the intended recipient had not yet listened to), there was no offence. In the words of the then director of public prosecutions (DPP): “To prove the criminal offence of interception, the prosecution must prove that the actual message was intercepted prior to it being accessed by the intended recipient.”

That was Sir Keir Starmer. His advice meant the scandal could not be reopened, which seemed daft as the law – as he had expressed it – was obviously deficient. But what was the point of Labour campaigning on it? When did the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) change its advice under political pressure? The British legal system is designed never to buckle, no matter how politically charged the case. But in the end, Starmer did change his advice – and thereby facilitated the biggest criminal investigation in history. The Met was stunned.

The next year, Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, was accused by his estranged wife of asking her to take his speeding points. This should have been treated like any other suggestion of criminality. But Starmer treated it as of near-historic importance, turning up to make a televised statement when he decided to prosecute for perverting the course of justice.

No one, then, accused him of being on party political manoeuvres. No one imagined he saw himself as a Labour prime minister. The DPP has had nothing to do with politics since the job was created in 1879: the two worlds never collided.

Starmer now says that, all along, his politics inspired his career and that he started off defending trade unions and activists and “never forgot where he came from” while serving as the DPP. Perhaps this will be the norm, and a new generation of prosecutors will be seen to have a Labour or Tory bias. And be picked by that standard. But to many in the legal world, our courts are trusted because they’re seen to be above politics. Starmer’s career was a challenge to that model.

He once wrote to a newspaper announcing that his colleagues in the CPS “do not shy away from prosecuting politicians”. An important principle. But police and prosecutors shouldn’t revel in going after politicians, either: MPs should be treated like anyone else. If you set a precedent establishing that politicians get the book thrown at them after even a small accusation, then you will not have equal justice.

In promising to resign if guilty, Rayner is now following Starmer, who said he’d resign as Labour leader if he was fined for unlawfully having a curry during lockdown. He did this to put pressure on Boris Johnson who was also being investigated but did not say he’d step down. So this cranks up the game another few notches: if a politician is found guilty of a minor offence, they quit. All the more incentive for politicians to keep on accusing each other – with the police scrambled into action to decide careers as well.

No one argues that politicians should be immune from prosecution (as many are in France). Peter Murrell, husband of Nicola Sturgeon and former chief executive of the SNP, has been charged in connection with the embezzlement of funds from the Party. Scots will want to know that police follow wherever the evidence leads. Murrell denies any wrongdoing.

But a look at America – where there are calls, depending on your politics for either Donald Trump or Joe Biden to go to prison – shows where this can lead.

British democracy has managed for generations with voters, not lawyers, deciding who rises and falls. That’s something worth trying to save, if we still can.

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