I CAN’T remember when I first got fed up with the suffix “-gate” being applied to every scandal, real or fabricated, that came along, but it must have been much closer to the original Watergate affair than to the present day.

Perhaps it was “Gategate”, the row in 1993 over the hideous memorial gates unveiled for the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday, but whatever it was, there’s been a lot of water under the gates, and far too many gates, since.

The trope was apparently started in the 1970s by the conservative American journalist William Safire, partly as a way of playing down the events that led to Richard Nixon’s downfall, though since it later turned out that Safire had been among the people Nixon wiretapped, perhaps he shouldn’t have bothered. 

In fact, since – apart from politics – what Safire chiefly wrote about was language, he ought to have been alert to the difference between amusing or useful coinages (and jokes which rely for their effect on endless repetition) and things that quickly become lazy clichés that just irritate the reader.

I suppose the journey from Watergate to Beergate is progress of a sort, unless you would prefer to call it Keirgate.

Because, although reports suggest there were up to 30 people shoving curry and lager down their gullets in Durham at the end of April last year, when indoor gatherings for anything other than essential work were banned in England, it’s Sir Keir Starmer who is principally in the firing line.

True, things are a bit sticky, too, for his deputy, Angela Rayner, though that’s chiefly because the party initially denied that she’d been present, and it now appears that she was.

As Nixon could have told you, it’s often not the initial offence that damns you, it’s the cover-up. But that may well not have been her fault.

The main difficulty for Sir Keir is that he has spent the past few weeks endlessly banging on about the fact that any technical breach of lockdown rules by politicians is automatically a resigning matter.

And he was quite right to do so, at least in strategic terms. Few people doubt that “partygate” was a significant factor in the drubbing that the Conservatives received at the local elections last week, when they lost almost 500 councillors over the whole country.

Even if you think that a majority of people aren’t very interested in whether a politician had a glass of wine (and I’m not at all sure that is the case), there is a significant number who are absolutely incandescent about it.

Given that many of them suffered tremendously during lockdown and, when they lost family members, were unable to say goodbye to them, or to have a proper funeral, it’s hardly surprising that they should be furious about breaches of the rules by the people who were making them.

The brunt of that ire, naturally, is directed at the government, because they made the rules.

Even those of us who thought they were excessive at the time (some teenagers got fines of tens of thousands of pounds for gatherings less well attended than the ones in Durham and Downing Street) wouldn’t defend the notion that MPs, MSPs or civil servants were somehow a special case.

What isn’t sustainable, though, is to damn those you disapprove of, and excuse the ones you support – which is one reason why Sir Keir’s initial protestations that the event he attended was quite different from the prime minister being given a bit of cake won’t wash.

There’s evidence, in fact, of lots of senior politicians breaking the rules; as well as Sir Keir, the PM and both the Welsh and Scottish First Ministers have been pictured without masks in settings when they were, at the time, required, though only the PM has yet been fined.

You may well regard these as very trivial, especially compared with full-scale parties, but the difficulty for opposition politicians is that having, understandably, tried to get as much mileage as possible out of being censorious, they can’t then wriggle out of having the same principles applied to themselves.

The other point is that almost all of them were whole-hearted supporters of these measures, and harsh penalties – indeed, their most frequent complaint was that the restrictions should be even stricter.

I’m not at all sure that fining Sir Keir for having a beer and a biryani is really warranted, but that’s not the attitude he took when calling for the PM and Chancellor to resign.

And you needn’t be a great fan of Rishi Sunak to think he’s entitled to feel a bit aggrieved, since the basis for his fine really seems to be having turned up to a meeting five minutes early.

The only logical, plausible and potentially useful course of action for the Labour leader is to do what he did yesterday. 

That was to announce, if the Durham Police investigation leads to his receiving a fine, that he will immediately resign as leader of his party.

Because the reality of the position he now finds himself in – and which he largely created by concentrating so hard on the Downing Street breaches – is that, if fined, he has essentially no chance of surviving.

Of course, because of the kind of person he is, Boris Johnson didn’t resign, and just barrelled on.

It might have been a good deal more difficult for him to do that if Mr Sunak had resigned, but as it turned out, he didn’t.

Not that I think the PM would resign if Sir Keir were to, but it would certainly place him in an awkward position, which even he might have trouble brazening his way out of. And it would mean the whole saga carrying on, the one thing he’s desperate to avoid.

If Sir Keir escapes a fine, he will then have accrued a certain vindication in having adopted a principled stance. It’s impossible to see how he could continue as leader if he is fined, though, precisely because of the stance he has taken.

So it’s difficult to see what the downside is for him at the moment, since the outcome looks like a toss of the coin. (The bookies have it at 11/10 that he will receive a fine.)

This strikes me as a fairly minor issue to resign over but Sir Keir, as his constant proclamations indicate, obviously disagrees with me.

This is a brutal, but obvious, reminder that all politicians live in glass houses, liberally furnished with motes and beams.