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Project Smear Starmer

The right wing press is stepping up its attacks on Labour’s leader as the general election nears. But what happens if he wins?

Image: The New European

According to the right wing press, he’s a hypocrite, a racist, a liar, an ocean-going dud who doesn’t believe in anything. He can’t be trusted on Brexit or security. He can’t be trusted to protect women. He can’t be trusted with the economy, the NHS, the free press or even the monarchy. In fact, he can’t be trusted on anything. What’s more, he’s rich, he’s woke, and he plays the flute.

In his four years as Labour leader, Keir Starmer has had all these charges and more laid at his door – such as protecting the guilty and hounding the innocent while pursuing his career as a human rights barrister and director of public prosecutions. And we all thought his biggest vice was to be boring. You can bet that, as the election draws closer, we shall learn about many, many more of his “failings”.

The right wing press has accused him of “thinking that one in a thousand women has a penis” and of declining to support government legislation – notably “life-saving” anti-strike and anti-migrant laws. He was similarly at fault for campaigning to get Jeremy Corbyn into No 10. The Mail, which demands unquestioning loyalty from Tory MPs to whoever happens to be their leader, cannot forgive him for that.

He must also take the blame for what Tory prime ministers do or don’t do. Boris Johnson initiated the investigation into partygate and appointed Sue Gray to carry it out. But when she subsequently signed up to be Starmer’s chief of staff, was this proof that partygate was a Labour plot? Environmental protesters threw orange powder about and asylum seekers turned up in dinghies on Rishi Sunak’s watch. But were photographs of these events a “vision of Starmer’s Britain”?

The Mail and the Sun, Britain’s bestselling newspapers, hate Starmer. So do the Telegraph and Express. We can expect them to hate him with even more of a passion over the next few months because, judging by the polls, he’s probably going to win and possibly by a landslide.

The Mail and the Sun, Britain’s best-selling newspapers, hate Starmer. So do the Telegraph and Express. We can expect them to hate him with even more of a passion over the next few months because, judging by the polls, he’s probably going to win and possibly by a landslide. That would not only deprive them of the influence they have wielded over the last five prime ministers, but also leave them open to the threat of Leveson 2 and tougher regulation, and put their proprietors’ nondom status in jeopardy. Perhaps more importantly, it would make them appear out of touch with the country – the “the will of the people” you might say – and irrelevant. How do they counter that? Will they switch sides – as the Sun did with Blair in 1997? Murdoch likes to be on the winning side, but it’s too late for that, too much face to lose.

The Telegraph has already given over its front page to a series of attacks on Sunak, including a brutal poll commissioned by Lord Frost and last week’s savaging of the PM by Liz Truss’s close ally Simon Clarke. The Mail has a shed full of manure ready to chuck at “back-stabbing Brutus” Sunak, left over from when it championed Truss in the last leadership race but one.

But for now, the prime target is “Mogadon Man” Starmer. The smearing began the moment he put his hand up to succeed Jeremy Corbyn in 2020, with Harry Cole reporting for the Mail on Sunday that as a “young Trot”, Starmer had spent the 1980s opposing the minimum wage. He might now hail it as one of Tony Blair’s great achievements, but the 24-year-old “middle-class radical” had argued in 1986 that it would weaken trade unions and interfere with free collective bargaining.

Cole – a former partner of Carrie Johnson who graduated to the mainstream press from the Guido Fawkes gossip blog – is a key proponent of a style of right wing “investigative” journalism often indistinguishable from partisan campaigning (Guy Adams and Andrew Pierce on the Mail are also experts). And he was back ploughing a new field of outrage within a month of Starmer getting the job.

“Man of the people?” asked the headline. “New Labour leader Keir Starmer owns land worth up to £10m”. How shocking! It’s perfectly all right to have a multimillionaire Conservative PM married to the daughter of a billionaire businessman, but it is beyond the pale for a Labour leader to own a field.

This was a seven-acre plot behind the semi where Starmer grew up, which he had bought 24 years earlier for his parents’ donkey sanctuary. Developers were reportedly “showing interest”, but not only was the land not on the market, it was in the green belt and therefore not eligible for development. Starmer did eventually sell it though – not for £10m, but for an estimated £400,000.

A more insidious attack came when the Express and Mail had him “at the centre of a racism row” after telling Sunak during PMQs that he didn’t “get” Britain. This was a silly choice of words to throw at the son of Asian immigrants, but what Starmer meant was that Sunak was out of touch with ordinary people. An opinion poll in the Mail found 64% of respondents agreed.

Starmer’s legal background has provided more fertile territory. He once worked pro bono on a campaign to get the death penalty abolished in some Caribbean countries. This was translated by Cole, who is now the Sun’s political editor, into a feature on “Baby killers and axe murderers saved by Starmer”. He had, Cole wrote, worked for free to help “scores of twisted killers around the world”.

As James Ball pointed out in these pages, every defendant – however repellent – is entitled to legal representation. But Starmer wasn’t touring the world to get unsavoury individuals “off the hook” anyway. He was trying to stop anyone – not just those in the specific cases cited by Cole – from being executed, which the Sun is supposed to want too.

The day before, Cole’s colleague Trevor Kavanagh had also been attacking “Sir Shifting Sands”, this time for saying that he knew nothing about Peter Mandelson’s links to Jeffrey Epstein. “Why didn’t he know?” demanded Kavanagh. “How could this self-proclaimed scourge of terrorists, murderers and rapists be so casual about ties between one of his best buddies and the world’s most notorious sex criminal?”

Having acknowledged that there was no suggestion of any wrongdoing on Mandelson’s part, Kavanagh moved on to describe Mr Bates Vs the Post Office as a “poignant reminder of another case of innocent men and women hounded by unaccountable authority – the pursuit of dozens of blameless journalists over crimes that they not only did not commit but which, it turned out, weren’t crimes at all”.

The victims of this “grotesque injustice” were a dozen Sun journalists, none of whom was convicted, bankrupted or ostracised, none of whom lost their family home, went to jail or took their own lives. And how had they come to the attention of the chief prosecutor? Because Rupert Murdoch and his lieutenants had handed over literally tons of incriminating documents to the authorities as they threw their staff under the bus in an effort to save the company after the hacking scandal blew open.

The Telegraph, too, has been pointing the finger at DPP Starmer in relation to Horizon. The Post Office had privately prosecuted most of the wronged postmasters, but the CPS was involved in at least 11 cases and three of those convictions were secured during Starmer’s tenure. This, the Telegraph reported, “will intensify criticism of Sir Keir”. Presumably because, while overseeing some 750,000 cases in his five years as DPP, he must surely have personally given the go-ahead for the prosecution of a handful of sub-postmasters suspected of having their fingers in the till.

But the prize for the most concerted assault on Starmer’s character must go to “beergate”, in which the Mail hammered him day after day for having a curry and a bottle of beer while campaigning during the pandemic. Starmer had been excoriating Boris Johnson over partygate, so if he, too, had been flouting Covid laws it was right for the press to take an interest. But was the coverage fair?

From the word go, the Mail sought to minimise partygate and the suitcases-full-of-wine drinking culture that flourished under Johnson’s own roof, believing that the attention the scandal was getting was disproportionate, a distraction from important things such as the war in Ukraine. On April 22, 2022, its splash demanded “How long can the partygate farce go on?” A month later, when Johnson and Sunak received just one penalty each over “a birthday cake that never left its Tupperware box”, it led on “What a farcical waste of time and £460,000”.

Yet those two farce headlines were bookends for a concerted campaign – including nine lead stories in 11 days – to get Durham police to reinvestigate Starmer drinking that beer. “Starmer the Covid party hypocrite” had made an exclusive splash for the paper back in January. The police had looked into the allegations and taken no action. Under pressure from the Mail and Tory MPs, they looked again.

Starmer was then accused of seeking to influence the investigation by saying he would resign if found to have broken the law. The Mail, which didn’t at all try to influence the police investigation and had already made clear that – in Boris Johnson’s case at least – law-

breaking was not a resignation matter, would naturally have been delighted for Starmer to have remained in office had he been fined. It would have been the never-ending stick with which to beat him.

In the end, after expending 3,200 man hours and £101,000, the police concluded for the second time that the Labour leader had broken no rules. This time, instead of focusing on a “waste” of time and money, the Mail headline (on an inside page) was “They’ve bottled it”. Starmer had, it reported, “escaped a fine”, but “suspicions had been raised that the decision was politically motivated”. The people with those suspicions were Michael Fabricant (later knighted by Johnson) and a Tory county councillor.

The ammunition for the beergate onslaught came in a video taken by the student son of a right wing anti-vax climate-denying former Mail writer. I mention this only to demonstrate the unfairness of another Mail tactic: guilt by association. Anyone of whom it disapproves can expect to be tainted by their parentage, associates, supporters, even people with whom they have no direct connection if they can be presented as “fellow travellers” – regardless of whether they share the same opinion. Conversely, anyone close to the “target” can expect also to have their reputations traduced, the clearest example of this being the “Man who hated Britain” spread on Ralph Miliband in 2013.

It’s already started with “fury” that a man who funded Just Stop Oil had also given money to the Labour Party, amplified by Suella Braverman declaring the following week that Starmer was “in the pocket of the eco mob”. He is also, of course, in hock to the unions. Because unions have always financed the Labour Party. Strangely, we don’t read much in these papers about Russian donors to the Conservatives, or the Tories being in hock to big business.

Braverman’s contribution was another standard manoeuvre: get quotes from someone you think has clout to give weight to a spurious claim. The Mail and Express both have a squad of reliable “senior Tory” voices on speed-dial to feign outrage at any lefty or woke nonsense. These prove particularly useful when the time comes to get your retaliation in first. As it did last week when the Mail reported that Starmer had “waded in” to the culture war by defending the National Trust and RNLI. The intro was not what the Labour leader had said, but a Tory backbencher’s opinion of it: “Keir Starmer was accused of ‘relentlessly politicising’ British life as he pledged to defend organisations that go woke.”

We’ll see a lot more of this, notably when the manifestos are published. Sunak’s will be trumpeted as a blueprint for booming Britain; there will be pages of people saying how wonderful everything is going to be, with a few paragraphs of Labour gainsaying them tucked away in a corner.

By contrast, Starmer’s will be ridiculed on page one of the whitetops, with opponents howling that he will bankrupt us, that taxes will rise, that he won’t stop the boats, that he’ll drag us back into Europe. The Sun will splash on a “Prem ace” doing something. All will limit detailed examination of his proposed programme to a spread or two, spattered with panels from “experts” explaining why it can’t and won’t work.

Consistency will be sacrificed to expediency. In 2013, Ed Miliband said he would freeze energy prices if Labour won the next election. This was presented as “Back to the bad old days” of 1970s socialism. When Theresa May promised in 2017 to cap prices, it was cheered as “£100 off your energy bill”. In August 2022, Starmer was ridiculed after calling for a freeze on that cap for the winter. That was “pure socialism” that would make the crisis worse and lead to higher taxes. Liz Truss’s first act when she took office the following month was to freeze the cap on energy bills for two years. This was “Liz’s energy revolution”.

More subtle methods will also be employed to undermine Labour and its leader, such as the choice of photographs and the use of “Rishi” for Sunak against “Starmer” or some snidey nickname for the Labour leader. And if he is called “Sir Keir” in a headline, it will probably be sneeringly, as in “Do you REALLY think we’re going to fall for that, Sir Keir?”

Starmer must know he’s on a hiding to nothing. He’s written for the Telegraph, the Sun, the Mail and the Express and all he’s got is flak from his own side – for saying Thatcher wasn’t wrong about everything, for “letting down” the people of Liverpool who boycott the Sun – or seen his words turned into new platforms for opponents to rubbish him.

Only the Mirror gives him a warm welcome. Come polling day, the Mail and Express will fill their fronts with why readers MUST back Rishi, while the Sun will use a caricature and a pun to tell theirs why they mustn’t back Starmer – remember the Kinnock lightbulb, the Miliband bacon sandwich.

But before then, there will be dastardly secrets to be uncovered. Does he have two kitchens? Is the coat he chooses for the Cenotaph too expensive or too scruffy? Does his hat look too Russian?

We’ve got months to find out. The attack dogs have barely peeked out of their kennels yet. It’s going to be ugly. Very ugly.

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See inside the Project: Smear Starmer edition

Image: The New European

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