As scandals over parties, PPE and pornography continue to pile up, it begins to feel like the last months of the Major government that brought us Tony Blair and New Labour 25 years ago this week.
If you are the Daily Mail or its Sunday sister, there is only one thing for it: go on the attack. And it has been aiming right at the top – at Sir Keir Starmer and his deputy, Angela Rayner.
The pair haven’t helped themselves in their handling of the beer-swigging, crotch-flashing allegations, especially the lame “honest mistake” response to the disclosure that Rayner had been at Durham Miners’ Hall when they’d said she hadn’t. The Mail titles may have a smoking gun or a water pistol. It doesn’t really matter which, because people will make up their minds about Partygate v Beergate almost entirely on the basis of their political persuasions. We all like to have our pet theories “confirmed” by the “evidence” and, as the EU referendum demonstrated in spades, you can’t fight emotion with facts.
The Mail knows this. It also knows that the reverse is the case, that you can fight facts with emotion; that you can confect outrage from trifling matters and deflect from enormities; that if you keep saying the same thing, true or not-so-true, it will stick in people’s minds. These are tactics it has deployed against Labour over the past couple of weeks and which will surely be ramped up as the general election approaches. And one word that is likely to keep cropping up is “hypocrisy” – the greatest sin in the Mail’s book.
The generally accepted definition of this is doing something that is counter to what you say. In the Mail’s eyes it can also mean doing something that is counter to something you said at any time in the past. Which means that nobody in public life is allowed to change their mind. Ever. Unless they have “seen the light” – in other words, come round to the Mail’s world view.
The Mail, on the other hand, is allowed to switch back and forth at will, which it will sometimes justify in leaders explaining that it is the foremost proponent of argument X, but in these special circumstances, it is now backing argument Y.
On April 13, after Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were fined for a breach of Covid rules, the paper thundered “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” What was the matter with everyone, thinking of sacking a prime minister at such a time – and over a piece of cake that never left its Tupperware box? Actually, there’s always a war on somewhere and we aren’t actually involved in this one, but that’s by the by.
Some might describe the breaking of laws you have yourself instigated as hypocrisy. But not the Mail. Many held the view that the key issue was not a nine-minute birthday celebration, but whether the prime minister lied to MPs. Not the Mail. It was all about the (uneaten) cake.
When the Commons returned after Easter, it didn’t put Johnson’s statement on the front page, as everyone else did. But when MPs decided to investigate whether he had misled parliament, it roared back with “How long can the Partygate farce go on?” There were more important things to worry about – not least Ukraine and the cost of living crisis.
Since then, the war has featured once on a Mail cover, the cost of living not at all. But Starmer’s bottle of beer has been the lead five times. The paper that was outraged about London police wasting their time investigating Johnson is now outraged that Durham police are not investigating the leader of the opposition (at least to the Mail’s satisfaction – the police did look into it and concluded that no offence had been committed, so now it wants a “proper” inquiry).
Where with Johnson it was all about the cake, not the lies, with Starmer it is all about the “lies” and “hypocrisy”, not the beer. We’ve had enough of the Partygate farce, but we can’t get enough of Beergate. Here’s a damning six-page dossier.
Oh, and Starmer had cake, too. Last Friday’s Mail devoted an entire page to it. “Starmer flouted lockdown guidance at own birthday party… with TWO cakes”. This was a classic. When Johnson was “ambushed by cake”, he broke the law because we were in full lockdown. Starmer’s birthday is in September, when restrictions were off and up to 30 people could gather legally, although we were encouraged to follow the rule of six. The Mail admits it doesn’t know how many celebrated this birthday, but the inference is that there must have been loads because there were two cakes. For all it knows, they could have been a couple of cupcakes.
Similarly, there must have been loads of people in that Durham office because “four bags” of Indian food were delivered (or not, depending on whether you believe the driver’s first or second account). Has no one at the Mail ever had a takeaway curry and seen how many bags it comes in? Starmer must have been lying because he said his hotel wasn’t doing food. It was. But the kitchen closed at 9pm; he was filmed eating at 10pm.
Then there is Rayner. Two weeks ago the Mail on Sunday ran a page 5 story that said Tory MPs had claimed she liked to distract Johnson by crossing and uncrossing her legs during PMQs. It quoted one MP anonymously and carried a denial from Rayner, whom it described as “a socialist grandmother who left school at 16 while pregnant and with no qualifications”. Because it always goes into the distant family background of every politician it reports on.
The story was widely denounced, including by the PM, and the Speaker waded in to summon the paper’s editor. Bad move. Two days later, the daily came out fighting with a splash about itself: “No, Mister Speaker”. This was an unacceptable assault on a free press. And, also, here was evidence that Rayner had herself joked about leg-crossing in a podcast. Rayner was back in the role of baddie and the fearless free-speech champion Mail was being victimised.
There was more of that last weekend, with Glen Owen bemoaning his week of suffering “vile abuse” on social media, under the headline “Monstered by Rayner’s trolls”, with its suggestion that she had marshalled a pile-on army, rather than people leaping to her defence unbidden.
Meanwhile, the front page had an “exclusive” on “Secret election pact to stitch up Boris”. To be clear, it was Tory party chairman Oliver Dowden, not the Mail, making the claim that Labour and the LibDems were standing down candidates in today’s elections to avoid splitting the anti-Tory vote.
Were such a pact to exist, the Mail would doubtless understand – given its “Stand down Nigel!” plea to the Brexit party leader before the 2019 general election. For to promote a strategy when it suits and then denounce it when it doesn’t would be the height of… now, what’s that word?
Liz Gerard is a former night editor of The Times. You can follow her on Twitter at @gameoldgirl