Boris Johnson caused anger this week by repeating a discredited claim linking Keir Starmer with Jimmy Savile.
While he was on the ropes over No 10 parties, the prime minister told parliament that the Labor leader had failed to prosecute the sex offender when he ran the Crown Prosecution Service.
But there is no evidence to support the claim. The PM’s words were branded “a disgrace to parliament and office of prime minister” by Nazir Afzal, a former chief Crown prosecutor for the North West on Monday.
“It’s not true. I was there. Keir Starmer had nothing to do with the decisions made. On the contrary, He supported me in bringing hundreds of child sex abusers to justice,” Mr Afzal said in a post on social media.
Many of Mr Johnson’s own MPs have also distanced themselves from the prime minister and said he should retract his comments.
Tory MP Julian Smith said on Tuesday that the PM’s “smear” against the opposition leader was “wrong and cannot be defended”, urging the prime minister to withdraw it.
He was joined overnight by veteran Tory Bob Neill, chair of the Commons Justice committee. Sir Bob said: “This suggestion is baseless and unworthy, even in the cut and thrust of political debate.
“There are plenty of reasons to attack Keith Starmer and Labor on their policies but not a false premise. Let’s at least fight out politics cleanly.”
Other Tories have said the PM does not have to apologise, though they have not repeated the remark outside the chamber. Within parliament MPs are protected from libel and defamation law.
Where did this claim originate? The answer is complicated. The allegation has circulated online since Sir Keir entered frontline politics.
One graphic that has done the rounds on Facebook and WhatsApp dubs Sir Keir “the man who failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile in 2009 in spite of evidence, threw out the case & then earned a knighthood.” The false graphic dates from 2020 when Sir Keir became Labor leader.
According to research by the Guardian, the first popular Facebook post containing the claim was shared by a page called Recusant Nine, whose post was shared 2,400 times. The page shares many posts relating to historic child sexual abuse and regularly makes unproven claims about the Labor party.
The false claim was picked up by pro-Brexit Facebook groups and has made its way into the more extreme fringes of the right.
One early significant point where the claim was referenced by a mainstream right-wing publisher was in a January 2018 post by the Guido Fawkes blog, published when Sir Keir was shadow Brexit secretary under Jeremy Corbyn.
The blog, which is read by many MPs and Westminster insiders, claimed the Savile episode was part of “Starmer’s litany of failure”. It says he “spent four years failing to prosecute 23 Sun journalists” while he “failed to build a case against Jimmy Savile.” The framing is strikingly similar to that of the prime minister, who also referenced the prosecution of journalists in his remarks from him to the Commons.
The deployment of the remark was pre-planned by the prime minister. the Financial Times reports that Mr Johnson was “strongly advised” not to use the line by some of his advisors in No 10, but they said: “He doesn’t listen to advice.”
It could be that the PM wanted to use the claim as a “dead cat” to deflect attention while he was on the ropes and cause a row. Whether it has backfired on him or not will only become clear with time.