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Occasionally a politician makes a commitment that you instantly know will be repeated back at them endlessly in the years to come.
One such moment took place on Thursday, when the Labour leader Keir Starmer set out his pledge to “restore standards in public life” if he becomes Prime Minister with “a total crackdown on cronyism”.
“No-one will be above the law in a Britain I lead”, Starmer insisted.
The Labour leader’s cast iron commitment to eliminate the sort of bad behaviour demonstrated by the current Government over the last 14 years was crystal clear.
However, this commitment was put to an immediate test when he was asked by one journalist in the room about reports of the relationship between his close political ally Peter Mandelson and the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
Asked if Mandelson, who continues to advise the Labour leader, has “questions to answer” about his previous relationship with Epstein, Starmer entirely dodged the question, replying that “I don’t know any more than you do and therefore, there’s not really much I can add to what you already know I’m afraid and that’s simply the state of the affairs”.
For a politician who had just made restoring standards in public life the centre piece of his campaign to become Prime Minister, this was hardly a satisfying answer.
Reports about Mandelson’s relationship with Epstein first emerged in June last year, at which point Starmer’s spokesman insisted that the Labour leader had “no reason to believe” that Mandelson wasn’t a fit and proper person.
Yet the Labour leader is now insisting that at no point in the intervening seven months has he ever thought to seek any more information from his adviser about that relationship.
Setting the Bar High
Other doubts continue to surround the Labour leader’s commitment to standards in public life.
He has already abandoned most of the ten pledges he made while running for the leadership, with the full list now deleted from his website. Subsequent pledges to spend £28 billion a year on green investments have also been watered down, with the Labour leader again suggesting today that the target would only remain if it met “our fiscal rules”.
Of course political commitments are always subject to circumstances and there is arguably a difference between commitments made in a leadership campaign and those made before a general election.
However, if you choose to run a campaign based on highlighting your own political integrity, then you have to be make sure that it is able to fully stand up to public scrutiny.
Luckily for Starmer, the bar set by the current Government should not be particularly hard for him to clear. Since promising to restore “integrity, professionalism and accountability” to Government, Rishi Sunak has presided over a series of ministerial scandals, while breaking multiple pledges made just months ago.
This breach has furthered a gradual collapse in trust in both him and his Government over recent years. To give just one recent example, new polling conducted by pollsters We Think for Byline Times, shows that Sunak’s claim to the Covid Inquiry to have lost access to every single WhatsApp message he sent during the pandemic is believed by just 23% of voters, compared to 77% who disbelieve him.
However, in choosing to emphasise his own commitment to restore public trust in politics, Starmer is asking the public to judge him by the highest possible standards, if and when he does become Prime Minister.
Time will tell whether that decision proves to have been a wise one.