Keir Starmer pulls out of speaking event amid fresh questions over lockdown beer and curry

Labour leader’s bid to build on encouraging local election results undermined by Durham Police inquiries

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Monday 09 May 2022 08:45
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Wes Streeting defends Keir Starmer over Beergate allegations

Keir Starmer has pulled out of an event at which he would have faced questions about the police inquiry into whether he breached Covid rules with a beer and curry.

Labour has declined to explain why its leader has cancelled the appearance at the Institute for Government on “meeting the challenges the country faces” ahead of Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech.

The even offered Sir Keir a platform to pile further pressure on the government to show it is dealing with the cost of living crisis in the crucial unveiling of up to 30 bills for the new parliamentary session.

But his attempts to build on last week’s encouraging local election results have been undermined by Durham Police looking again at the lockdown event in April last year, dubbed ‘Beergate’ by his enemies.

The Labour leader was filmed drinking a beer while sharing a takeaway meal with party colleagues, at the end of a day spent campaigning for the council elections last year.

He has insisted indoor gatherings, and eating and drinking during them, were allowed under the rules at the time if such meetings were “reasonably necessary for work”.

The Conservatives have accused him of hypocrisy, after he called for Boris Johnson to resign for lying to parliament over the No 10 parties – which police have concluded did break Covid laws.

Wes Streeting, the shadow education secretary, said he did not know why Sir Keir had cancelled his appearance, but told the BBC: “I just don’t understand the controversy.

“I certainly don’t understand the comparison between that and the regular, repeated rule-breaking we saw in the heart of Downing Street.”

New claims have fuelled the controversy, even as the crisis around the prime minister continues to grow with Scotland Yard handing out fines over a Christmas party in No 10 in December 2020.

A leaked planning note showed Sir Keir and Mary Foy, the local MP, were scheduled to have dinner in the Labour office where he was working from 8.40pm to 10pm, and then return to his hotel.

The Conservatives claimed this showed the meal was pre-planned, blowing apart the defence that around 15 people had the takeaway because there was nowhere else to eat.

But Adam Wagner, a barrister specialising in lockdown rules, said the memo bolstered the chances of Sir Keir being cleared, because it made clear the purpose of the gathering was work.

“I don’t really see how it could be a breach of the regulations,” he said, pointing out it was a “scheduled event as part of the leader of the opposition’s visit to Durham – during a local election campaign”.

Separately, The Sunday Times quoted an unnamed source present at the event claiming Sir Keir did not return to work after his meal, as he has claimed.

Tory ministers appear split on whether to call for the Labour leader to resign if he is fined, amid nervousness about how that could rebound on the prime minister’s position.

Jacob Rees-Mogg said he should not – but the universities minister Michelle Donelan said he would have to “think long and hard” about quitting.

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