Gaming the consequences of Keir Starmer’s beer drinking probe

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Good morning. The dust is still settling on last week’s elections. We’ll be exploring the new lie of the land over the next few days. For now, today’s newsletter looks at the most significant result from the action last week, and explains the calculations Conservatives and Labour MPs will be making about Sir Keir Starmer’s alleged rule-breaking in Durham. Get in touch via the email address below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

Our latest stories

  • UK break-up | British ministers have rejected claims that a historic election victory by pro-Irish unity party Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland heralds the break-up of the UK. Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis will today begin trying to coax pro-UK unionists to join the region’s government.

  • Call for cash | The head of the British Chambers of Commerce, Shevaun Haviland, has urged chancellor Rishi Sunak to draw up an emergency budget to support companies struggling with the rising costs of energy, raw materials and labour.

  • Rent reforms | New measures to protect renters in England and Wales that were promised in the Conservative’s 2019 manifesto are expected to appear in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow.

  • ‘It’s a crisis’ | ScottishPower, one of Britain’s biggest energy suppliers, has warned households to brace for a further rise of £900 in their annual bills this year and called on the government to “come up with the solutions now”.

Uniting Ireland

The most important political story from the local elections is the result of the Northern Ireland assembly. Sinn Féin finished top of the poll, becoming the region’s biggest political force for the first time in over a century.

Although the presence of a Sinn Féin first minister has huge symbolic importance, the reality is that support for the republican and nationalist parties is nowhere near a majority.

A chart showing seats declared in the Northern Ireland Assembly election showing that Sinn Féin edges out DUP to become Northern Ireland's biggest political force with 27 seats compared with 25 respectively

The story here is the collapse of the Democratic Unionist party, which has shed votes to other unionist parties, rather than a sudden surge in support for Sinn Féin. The biggest political shift is the growing support for the centrist Alliance party, which has taken votes from both moderate unionists and nationalists. While the election has triggered a further round of recrimination about the Northern Ireland protocol, the assembly does have a majority for pro-protocol parties, and an even larger one for parties who believe that the protocol needs to be fixed, not torn up.

As the FT’s Ireland correspondent Jude Webber explains in greater depth here, the path from these results to a united Ireland is far from clear.

But because of Sinn Féin’s electoral success and the pressures facing Boris Johnson at Westminster, various parties are incentivised to either talk up the possibility of an imminent border poll or of a wholesale rejection of the Northern Ireland protocol. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin is hardly going to concede that the case for a border poll is no stronger this week than last week.

After a series of largely self-made reverses, the DUP isn’t going to accept the protocol is here to stay. And at Westminster, a Conservative government still bruised from heavy losses of its own is not going to pick a fight with its own right flank over the protocol, either. Tory talk of unsustainable pressure on Northern Ireland’s place in the UK could yet become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Currying favour

Durham police’s decision to reopen their investigation into whether Sir Keir Starmer broke lockdown rules at a Labour gathering on April 30 2021 is bad news for at least two of the following: Starmer, Boris Johnson or the Conservative party. The leader of the opposition party had come under fire after new evidence suggested that a curry dinner he attended with colleagues in lockdown was pre-planned.

There are, broadly speaking, three things that could happen: Durham Constabulary’s investigation allows Starmer to say that he has been investigated and exonerated, Starmer is fined and has to resign, Starmer is fined and does not resign.

Starmer getting exonerated is obviously bad news for the Conservative party and Johnson. Starmer being fined and not resigning is obviously bad news for the Labour party and for its leader. Starmer resigning, however, is also bad news for Johnson and the Tories: it deepens the contrast between the two parties over the issue, and some Conservatives fear that the result would be a Labour party with a more formidable leader.

It’s worth at this point refamiliarising ourselves with the Labour party rule book. In the event that Starmer steps down, would-be candidates require the support of 20 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour party (that’s 40 MPs) to make the ballot, plus the support of either 5 per cent of affiliates (trade unions, various ginger groups), including at least two trade unions, or the support of 5 per cent of constituency parties (33 CLPs). That’s thanks to a combination of rule changes driven through by Starmer and by his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.

That increase in the number of MPs required to make the ballot makes it near impossible for a candidate from the Labour left to make it to the ballot (though one should never rule out that the Parliamentary Labour party will act against its own interests). Meanwhile, the trade union threshold makes it difficult, but not impossible, for a candidate from the party’s right to be selected for the vote.

In the event that Starmer does quit, the politician who would be best placed would be someone from the party’s middle: almost certainly Lisa Nandy, who most Conservative MPs privately think, whether rightly or wrongly, presents most danger to them.

The political damage that Starmer’s resignation might cause, and the Tories’ fear of who might come after him, are two reasons why the Conservative whips are trying to cool down the rhetoric on the issue. My former colleague Patrick Maguire, Red Box editor for the Times, has reported on the pressures dominating MPs’ WhatsApp chats.

This is why Jacob Rees-Mogg, appearing on the inaugural episode of Andrew Neil’s new Channel 4 show (full disclosure: I will be appearing on some later episodes), played down the idea that Starmer should resign. Loyal Tory MPs will be using their time on the airwaves to suggest that resignation is not necessarily an appropriate response to a fine, whether your name is Johnson or Starmer.

Now try this

I spent a lot of this weekend catching up on sleep and listening to Arcade Fire’s new record WE. It’s a stunning return to form after the band’s album Everything Now from 2017, which was patchy at best. At least that’s what I thought. For a countervailing opinion, here’s Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, who was rather unimpressed in his review.

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