A damper was put on Starmer’s local election celebrations as he was informed on Friday that Durham police were launching an investigation into a gathering the Labour leader was at.
The gathering took place in a Labour party office in Durham on the 30th of April 2021, after a day of campaigning in the area. It entailed takeaway curry and some alcohol, but there is some dispute about the extent of the gathering and whether it was in breach of lockdown rules.
In February, Durham police reviewed footage of the gathering and concluded that no offence had been committed, so no further action was necessary. However, on Friday the Durham police force announced that they were launching a renewed investigation into the event, in light of “significant new information”. During the week leading up to the police announcement, Richard Holden, Tory MP for North West Durham, had called on the force to renew its ‘Beergate’ investigation. In addition, over the weekend a Labour party note entailing the day’s plans was leaked to the Mail on Sunday, on which a takeaway was scheduled ahead of time, emotively describing the memo as “blowing apart” Keir Starmer’s account of the event. Conservative MPs jumped at the opportunity to attack the Labour leader for hypocrisy claiming that the food being planned ahead of schedule, rather than spontaneous, made the gathering no different than the parties at No. 10.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said:
“[The] hypocrisy of the way they focused so much on parties and not on the economy, not on [the] cost of living, is something that the public will be aware of.”
The memo also lists no further work to be conducted after the completion of the meal, with the only remaining task for Starmer that of returning to his hotel. Starmer had previously claimed that the meal was simply an intermission in work.
However, Labour maintains that it was a work meal – with people working, then one by one getting food in the kitchen before continuing their work. Alcohol was present at the gathering, but it is unclear what beverages, and what amount of said beverages, were drunk. Keir Starmer was pictured holding a bottle of what is assumed to be beer.
Labour sources are supposedly preparing a dossier for Durham police that shows that many of those in attendance continued working until as late as 1am, with Starmer one of those working late.
Most sources report around 15 people attended the gathering, although The Sun puts the number of attendees around 30. Regardless of the number of attendees, it has become apparent that Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner attended – which was originally denied by the Labour party. The Labour party subsequently admitted that Rayner attended, calling their earlier denial an “honest mistake”.
The rules at the time for campaigning recommended that: “You should not meet with other campaigners indoors” and that “all campaigning activity will need to follow the relevant rules on gatherings and social distancing”. This means that people were instructed to only meet in person at work if it was “reasonably necessary” to do so, and that social distancing of two metres should be maintained.
The investigation puts Keir Starmer in a difficult position after months of him calling for the Prime Minister to resign in response to police investigations into parties at No. 10. Labour MPs have however dismissed the notion that there is a similarity between Beergate and Partygate, pointing out that Labour has always been open about a gathering occurring, whereas the Prime Minister repeatedly lied about parties occurring, and later falsely denied that they had been in breach of regulations – regulations which his party had issued.
Labour is maintaining an outward appearance of certainty that no rules were breached, but if Starmer is issued a fixed penalty notice (FPN) he will be forced to resign. Some Labour MPs had not shied away from openly saying as much, with Diane Abbott stating:
“I don’t think he will [be issued a fine] – I think this is a lot of hype built up by the tory press. But if he were to get a fixed penalty notice, he would have to consider his position.”
The Labour leader has since confirmed that, if he is issued a fixed penalty notice, he will resign, in what is presumably an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. If Starmer is issued an FPN he will lose his position as leader regardless of what he says now, therefore by announcing this before the results of the investigation are released he stands to further strengthen his image of integrity in opposition to that of Johnson, who perpetually evaded the question of whether he would resign upon being issued an FPN – up until the moment he was issued one, at which point it became a resounding “no”. Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has also confirmed she will resign if she is issued an FPN.
Since taking on the mantle of Labour leader, Starmer has endeavoured to portray both himself and the Labour party as honest and possessing integrity, contrasting it against a slew of Conservative scandals. He will also be aware that his image as more honest and trustworthy than Johnson and his ministers is the only thing he currently has going for him. Despite the party’s strong results at the local elections, Starmer himself polls poorly, with a 7th of April yougov poll finding 53% of people think he is doing badly as opposition leader, compared to just 27% who think he is doing well. Some Labour councillors readily admitted on Friday that their victory over Conservative councillors was not because people were supportive of Labour, but because they were opposed to the tories.
If Starmer is forced to resign then the move could potentially have interesting repercussions for Johnson, who would undoubtedly face renewed calls to resign due to highlighted discrepancies between his willingness to be held to account for breaking the rules and that of his opposition. Johnson allies appear to be pre-emptively laying the groundwork for rejecting such calls, with Policing Minister Kit Malthouse saying in an interview with LBC:
“Obviously in any situation where, you know, the rules were moving around, there were misunderstandings or mistakes were made, and apologies are made and they are accepted, then people of all walks of life should be able to keep their jobs. But Keir Starmer has to speak for himself and set his own standards”
Other Conservative MPs are criticising Starmer for the promise to resign if he is fined, claiming that it is putting too much pressure on the Durham police force.
Cabinet Minister Chris Philp accused Starmer of “attempting to pressure the police into clearing him.”
Nonetheless, despite the best efforts of Conservative politicians and certain right-leaning newspapers, it seems unlikely that anything will come of the investigation.
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister, said of the investigation:
“The regulations allowed for any gathering that was reasonably necessary for work or voluntary activity. And obviously the purpose of that visit overall was for the leader of the opposition to visit the local campaigners and the local MP and that is all on the schedule.”
“So the police would have to say, ‘Well we actually disagree with the Labour party’s analysis of what was reasonably necessary for the leader’s trip to Durham’ and I am doubtful that they could really go behind that reasoning.”
“The issue with the Downing Street events was that they were prearranged social events.”
“Those being investigated are the ones where it’s quite obvious that the purpose of the event was social – a Christmas party, a leaving party, a birthday party.”
“Whereas the fact that this [Labour gathering] is preplanned, I think shows the opposite. It shows that the purpose was political.”
It has also been pointed out that the Downing St. party most analogous to the Labour gathering was one in which the Prime Minister and his staff were photographed drinking wine and eating cheese, while supposedly discussing work matters – this was one of the alleged Downing St. parties which the Metropolitan police decided not to investigate.
Finally, the Labour party claims it can prove that Keir Starmer’s team worked beyond the meal, all the way until almost 02:00 am. The party has provided WhatsApp groupchat messages, along with video and document edit times, to the Durham police. The last message, sent from an aide who was supposedly with Starmer at the time, was at 1:56 am.
Whichever way the investigation goes, Johnson will undoubtedly face renewed calls to resign over Partygate, which, paired with his party’s dire performance at the local elections, may be enough to oust him.