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OPINION – The Tory attack on Angela Rayner is a political masterstroke but unlikely to shift the polls

In Europe
April 12, 2024
 (PA)

(PA)

You probably don’t because it didn’t happen, but remember that time Keir Starmer almost had to resign? Cast your mind back to the spring of 2022 and the Labour leader had promised to quit if he received a fixed-penalty notice for the beer and curry he consumed following an event in Durham.

Why did he make such a commitment? Well, Starmer had repeatedly called on Boris Johnson to resign after the prime minister received a fine for breaking Covid-19 regulations. So this was partly out of a sense of moral leadership (no sniggering at the back). Of course, it was also political calculation. Starmer (and Angela Rayner’s) resignation promise raised the stakes but also took some of the sting out of the story. They would either come out stronger or be forced to leave the stage.

This could quite easily have backfired. Starmer may have been confident no rules were broken but he could not be wholly sure of his exoneration. As we know, it paid off. Two months later, Durham police issued not a penalty but a statement clearing both Starmer and Rayner. In doing so, it made Starmer appear both decisive and moral compared with Boris Johnson. In other words, it isn’t just the Tory collapse that has placed the Labour Party in such a commanding electoral position.

I don’t intend in this newsletter to explain in great detail what Rayner is accused of, with regard to the sale of a council house nearly 10 years ago. Not because details don’t matter – just ask Boeing. But because I’m more interested in the politics.

The Tories have good reason to go after Rayner. First, because she goes after them. Labour’s deputy leader has repeatedly attacked what she regards as ‘Tory sleaze’, whether over PPE contracts during the pandemic, Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs or her language (calling them “scum”).

Second, there is everyone’s favourite political charge: hypocrisy. The Conservatives would dearly love to paint Rayner in the public mind not as a working-class warrior but as someone who demands others pay their tax and then holds herself to a different standard.

Third, is popularity. Rayner is a well-liked politician (by politicians’ standards, anyway). Indeed, The Guardian reported last year that in focus groups conducted by Public First with Tory voters in Bolton and West Bromwich, Labour’s deputy leader was ranked the most popular politician in the country, praised for her honesty and straightforwardness. Features that are likely to take a hit in this now long-running saga which has not been handled as adroitly as ‘Beergate’.

Rayner denies allegations of wrongdoing. She is also ‘unsackable’ by Starmer, in the sense that Labour’s deputy leader is a directly elected position and therefore comes with its own mandate. But while she is forced to defend her name, Rayner is weakened, unable to go out and do what she does best: win votes and rile Conservatives. As such, even if she is ultimately cleared, the Tories can put this down as a successful piece of opposition research.

But that is not the same as a story that will fundamentally alter the polls. For that, Rishi Sunak needs to purchase a time machine to undo the damage done by Partygate, the mini-Budget and an energy shock – and even his pockets do not run that deep.

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