Starmer tries to focus on cost of living as Durham questions continue

The Labour leader has accused the Conservatives of ‘mudslinging’.

Ben Hatton
Wednesday 04 May 2022 16:33
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to a pensioners drop-in session in Wakefield, West Yorkshire (Danny Lawson/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to a pensioners drop-in session in Wakefield, West Yorkshire (Danny Lawson/PA)

Sir Keir Starmer would not be drawn on providing further details in relation to allegations he broke lockdown rules while out campaigning on the last day before the elections.

The Labour leader has come under pressure since footage emerged of him drinking a beer with colleagues in April 2021 in Durham during campaigning for the Hartlepool by-election.

Sir Keir said he wanted to focus on the cost-of-living crisis and not Conservative “mudslinging”.

At the time of the gathering, non-essential retail and outdoor venues including pub gardens were open but social distancing rules, which included a ban on indoor mixing between households, remained in place.

Following renewed focus on the issue in recent days, Sir Keir confirmed police have not been in touch with him in relation to the allegations.

(PA Graphics)

But he did not provide additional details, including how many people were present in Durham, when speaking to reporters while in Yorkshire for the last day of campaigning ahead of the local elections.

Asked if Durham Police have contacted him in recent days, Sir Keir said: “I have not had contact from Durham Police and I think people are just about fed up with the mudslinging that’s going on.

“We know there’s elections coming, we know what the Conservatives are up to. What we need to do, I think, is focus on the issue in hand, which is the cost of living.”

Asked what he was doing at 11pm in Durham on the night in question, and if he went back to work having eaten, he said: “We were working, we stopped, we ate. No breach of the rules. No party. And I think that’s enough for the mudslinging from the Tories on this.”

He added: “What this mudslinging tells me is that the Conservatives have no answer to the central issue, which is the cost-of-living crisis. If they had an answer to that question, they would give it.”

When asked how many people were with him on the night, and if it was as many as 30, he said: “I had a team with me. We were working in the office. No breach of the rules, no party.

“This relentless focus on mudslinging instead of the issue in hand by the Conservatives means that they’ve got no answer to the real question that so many people want answered, which is: ‘what are you going to do to help me with my bills?’”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said police have not contacted him (Peter Cary/PA)

He added: “We’ve got a clear answer to that, which is a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, and use that to help people pay their bills, up to £600 off their bills.”

In the light of the partygate scandal, Durham police have been asked by Conservative MP Richard Holden (North West Durham) to reconsider their assessment that no offence was committed during the meeting.

Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Wednesday, and asked if he had been questioned by officers since an initial probe after photos showed him having a beer and a takeaway with others last year, Sir Keir said of the police: “I think they put out a statement last week saying they’re not reinvestigating and they haven’t spoken to me.”

Describing the incident, he said: “We’re on the road, at the end of the day, we’re in the office preparing. Now, that evening, from memory, we were doing an online event for members because we had this ‘get out the vote’ thing.

“At some point, this was in the evening, everybody’s hungry and then that takeaway was ordered. It was then delivered into the kitchen of the offices.

“Restaurants and pubs were closed, so takeaways were really the only way you could eat.

“So this was brought in and at various points people went through the kitchen, got a plate, had some food to eat and got on with their work.”

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said the Tories are ‘mudslinging’ to distract from partygate and the cost-o-living crisis (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

It comes as The Sun reported Met Police bodyguards, who had accompanied Sir Keir to Durham, witnessed the Labour leader and aides drinking beers and eating £200 of curry.

According to the newspaper, witnesses suggest dozens of MPs and aides gathered at Durham Miners’ Hall, with the police car still there late into the evening.

Former Greater Manchester Police chief Sir Peter Fahy said Durham Police should “look at the new information and reconsider their situation”, but suggested there was more reason to investigate Downing Street parties.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme: “What came out from Parliament and what came out from the Home Secretary at the time was (that) really almost a deciding factor was repeated breach of the regulations, and I think that’s really what caused the pressure on the Metropolitan Police to have to investigate those alleged offences.”

On Twitter, Conservative MP Mark Jenkison (Workington) accused Sir Keir of evading questions during his interview on Good Morning Britain, claiming he did not deny 30 people where there.

He wrote: “Why won’t Keir Starmer just tell the truth?”

Tagging Durham Police on Twitter, he added: “How much more evidence do you need?”

A Durham Police spokesman said: “We have received a number of recent communications on this subject, which we are considering and will respond in due course.”

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves insisted on BBC Breakfast there is a “world of difference” between the industrial scale of rule-breaking at Number 10 and the Labour leader’s “beergate” affair.

She said: “The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have been fined by the Metropolitan Police whereas Durham police – where this alleged incident took place – said there’s no case to answer.

“The police have been very clear that in 10 Downing Street rule-breaking did happen and in Durham, Keir Starmer did not break the rules.”

Sir Keir previously admitted his office made a “genuine mistake” by wrongly claiming his deputy Angela Rayner was not there on the night he had a beer and takeaway.

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