Keir Starmer pulled out of a keynote speech he was due to make today as pressure built on the Labour leader to answer questions over so-called “beergate” claims.
Durham Constabulary announced last week that it was investigating whether an offence took place on 30 April last year, when Starmer visited the office of City of Durham MP Mary Foy, shared a takeaway curry and was videoed drinking a beer.
Starmer has said it was a spontaneous meal during the course of his campaigning for the Hartlepool by-election and that nobody had broken any lockdown rules. But a confidential Labour Party memo, leaked to the Mail on Sunday, appeared to show that it was written into his schedule.
The Sunday Times quoted an unnamed source allegedly present at the gathering, who claimed that Starmer did not return to work after his meal and that Foy and her staff were there for “a jolly”.
“Mary Foy and her staff were not working and I have not got a problem telling that to the police. They were just getting pissed,” said the source.
“Like all politicians who try to strike poses on the moral high ground, from John ‘Back To Basics’ Major to Tony ‘I’m A Pretty Straight Sorta Guy’ Blair, Starmer’s ethical posturing has come back to bite him,” wrote Mick Hume in the Daily Mail.
Perhaps if the Labour leader had “exhibited a more rational response to Partygate”, and “not called for the Prime Minister’s resignation over the crime of having a birthday cake in a Tupperware box”, he would find himself “in less trouble now”. But by being so “harrumphingly hawkish” over ‘Partygate’, Starmer has landed himself in a mess “entirely of his own making”, argued the columnist.
‘More like a dud’
This latest “bombshell” looks to be “more like a dud than a career-ending mortar round”, argued The Independent in an editorial over the weekend. The fact that Starmer scheduled a meal with a local MP during campaigning in Durham “doesn’t of itself suggest very much of a pre-planned social event, without being rude to those involved”.
Yet, even if Starmer is found “innocent” of breaking lockdown rules, a “stain” over the incident will remain, “which is wrong but a matter of fact, and damaging to him and Labour’s chances of forming the next government”, said the paper. While Boris Johnson has a certain “roughishness” which is “priced in”, Starmer, on the other hand, is supposed to represent “honesty and integrity”.
A fixed penalty notice would “put him, in the eyes of many, in the same compromised category as Mr Johnson”.
Tories holding back
Despite the opportunity “beergate” presents for Johnson’s government, frontbenchers seem reluctant to capitalise on it, said The Times’s Patrick Maguire. He noted that Brexit minister Jacob Rees-Mogg gave an “equivocal response” to Andrew Neil on his Channel 4 Sunday night slot when asked whether Starmer should resign if fined.
“I think he should pay a fine and talk about the issues of great importance to the nation,” Rees-Mogg told Neil, but added that it was not for him to advise the Labour leader.
The reason why ministers are “not demanding Starmer’s head is obvious”, said Maguire. “The inescapable logic of that line is that Boris Johnson would have to quit too,” he continued. And so No. 10 seems to be calling for “a truce in this war of their own making”.
Taking the initiative
Starmer is “considering announcing that he would resign as Labour leader if he is found to have broken lockdown rules”, reported The Times’s Henry Zeffman in an exclusive this morning. At 4pm, Starmer confirmed the report in a press conference.
The Labour leader has been “urged by close colleagues to wrest back the political initiative” by saying he believes that receiving a fine for lockdown rule-breaking is a resigning offence, claimed Zeffman, although Starmer said it was his own decision. The move enables him to “keep calling for Boris Johnson’s resignation while he is under his own investigation”.
Starmer is understood to have accepted that he needs a “fresh political position” to reflect the “new reality” of the Durham police investigation, which threatens to “paralyse” the party as the inquries take place over the next six to eight weeks.