When the member for Brent Central, Dawn Butler, was ordered to leave the Commons last week after repeatedly describing Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a liar, her party leader said nothing. This was hardly surprising. Just a few weeks ago, Butler was forced to deny rumours she was plotting a bid to replace Starmer.
Butler’s time on Labour’s front-bench ended the moment Starmer succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as leader last year. They are, to put it mildly, not on the best of terms.
This is unfortunate for Starmer who missed a great opportunity to draw attention to Butler’s punishment and the actions that led to it.
It’s not difficult for MPs to get themselves booted out of parliament. The use of “unparliamentary language” - such as describing a fellow MP as a liar - followed by refusal to withdraw ones statement generally suffices.
Those dismissed from the chamber for what they see as the principled refusal to compromise their beliefs don’t always pull it off. There's a high risk that goading the speaker into action looks like a stunt. An MP angling for suspension may end up looking rather childish.
Butler avoided potential pitfalls when she was ordered to leave the chamber by deputy speaker Judith Cummins. Rather than looking like a stunt, Butler’s protest sounded like an exasperated howl on behalf of anyone who’s long since grown weary of the Prime Minister's dishonesty. Butler’s charge, that Johnson has lied repeatedly to parliament and the public throughout the pandemic, will have rung true with many. After all, so long and well documented is the list of false claims made by the current Prime Minister that no libel court in the land would entertain a claim against the charge that he's a dishonest man.
But there was something more about the scene. Butler got the tone just right. Asked by Cummins to withdrawn her remarks, she replied: “Madame Deputy speaker I have reflected on my words and somebody needs to tell the truth in this house… the Prime Minister has lied.”
Brent delivered these lines brilliantly and then complied with the instruction to leave the chamber. It was a powerful moment.
Starmer should have spoken up in defence of Butler. He should have explained how he sympathised. He should have dropped lines in interviews - “people will share Dawn’s frustration”, “Dawn spoke for many of us”, and so on.
There is, I think, mileage for the Labour leader in the simple truth that Johnson’s a liar. As he lets down - as populists must - more of his supporters, he will become increasingly vulnerable to this charge.
Rules about the appropriate use of language in parliament make sense. In theory, they help maintain a certain standard of debate. But these rules cease to make sense when they prevent an MP from telling the truth about the Prime Minister.
Johnson has, more than any Prime Minister in living memory, torn up the book of rules and conventions of leadership. He plays the game as he sees fit.
In the Johnson era, for example, allegations about financial impropriety are shrugged off. Challenge the PM about something questionable - grants given to his former friend Jennifer Arcuri while he was Mayor of London, for example - and he will tell you that what voters really care about is his government getting Brexit done or building back better. The standards of behaviour we’ve always expected from elected members have been ignored by populists such as Johnson. The upshot is that we no longer expect them.
Starmer’s failure to exploit Butler’s actions for political gain remind us that the end of Jeremy Corbyn’s disastrous leadership last year did not mean the end of the damaging division the has so undermined the party. Starmer’s victory in the leadership election signalled that members wished to return from the crank left where the party had relocated during the Corbyn years but there remains a substantial number of Labour members who feel the former boss was badly treated. A chunky minority of Labour members believe the party can win the next general election if they bring back Corbyn and give him a third kick of the ball.
This is Dawn Butler’s section of the party and so when members popped up on social media to praise her calm defiance, it was frequently in the context of Starmer’s perceived weakness. Butler, went the line, was taking a stand the leader had failed to.
There may be something in this. Starmer’s leadership has not quite set the heather on fire. It is true that he has taken control of the antisemitism crisis that threatened to destroy the party but there is little evidence that he’s connecting with the electorate in any useful way. A recent YouGov poll found 59 per cent of voters believed he was doing a bad job as Labour leader.
Where Johnson is energetic and enthusiastic, Starmer is stiff and uninspiring.
Perhaps the Labour leader should look to Dawn Butler for inspiration.
No, I don’t think Starmer should repeat the getting chucked out of the chamber thing. That moment has passed. But he should be thinking about how he can be bolder in his opposition.
Boris Johnson has risen to the top in politics by basing his decisions on what’s best for his career. His is never going to change. He is not suddenly going to start playing by the old rules of politics,.
This being so, perhaps Starmer might consider it's time to play rougher. The Prime Minister's greatest weakness is his dishonesty. Keir Starmer should take every opportunity he can to remind voters that Boris Johnson lies constantly and effortlessly.