Senior Labour figures fear that the “beergate” allegations about leader Sir Keir Starmer could prevent the party capitalising on public anger about partygate in Thursday’s local elections in Britain.
The Conservative party has been braced to lose hundreds of seats after the Metropolitan Police fined prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak as part of an investigation into more than a dozen parties in Downing Street and Whitehall that broke lockdown rules.
But Starmer faces questions about how he and other Labour figures shared a late-night takeaway curry, which reportedly cost £200, and beers in Durham during election campaigning in April 2021, when indoor socialising was banned.
Although Durham Police have looked at the allegations and decided not to investigate, the force has been urged by local Tory MP Richard Holden to re-examine the gathering at Durham Miners Hall.
Durham Police said on Wednesday: “We have received a number of recent communications on this subject, which we are considering and will respond to in due course.”
Speaking on ITV on Wednesday morning, Starmer said he had been “on the road” with his team ahead of last year’s local elections and they had taken a short break from work to eat at about 10pm.
Yet government guidance from March 25 ahead of the local elections said: “You should not meet with other campaigners indoors”.
The guidance, which was not changed in the ensuing six weeks, said that even where campaigners met outdoors they should stay two metres apart. Campaigners should stay away from each other and organise meetings on the internet or telephone.
Holden said that although the guidance was not legally binding, his party had obeyed it strictly: “Campaigners in Hartlepool were having fish and chips outside on windy days to stick to the rules.”
However, Labour has pointed to broader legal regulations from March 29 which gave an exception to the restriction on indoor gatherings where they were “reasonably necessary” for “work purposes”.
“The rules allowed you to have a gathering indoors if it was reasonably necessary for work. I don’t see how the police could take it any further,” Adam Wagner, a lawyer from Doughty Street chambers, told Sky News.
Starmer told ITV that his team was working in the office that evening: doing an online event for members, pre-recording video clips and clearing documents.
“It was in the evening. Everybody’s hungry and a takeaway was ordered. It was then delivered into the kitchen of the office,” he said. “All restaurants and pubs were closed. So takeaways were really the only way you could eat . . . at various points people went through the kitchen, got a plate and got on with their work.”
However, from April 12 2021 many restaurants and bars had been allowed to reopen with outdoor service.
Starmer said he had not been contacted by Durham Police in recent days.
Holden said it was “less and less credible” that Starmer broke off for curry and beers then resumed working late. “The idea that all the staff had drinks and a curry . . . then started work again is risible,” he said.
One front bench Labour MP said it was “entirely regular” for Starmer to be working until late at night. “He works very long hours all the time.”
Some Conservatives have highlighted parallels between the Starmer gathering and the fine handed by the Met to Sunak for attending a work event at which Johnson received a birthday cake.
One member of the shadow cabinet said that the row over Starmer, “weaponised” by rightwing newspapers, had “neutralised” the row over Tory figures attending parties during lockdowns.
“People aren’t angry about it in the way they were about Boris Johnson but they are saying ‘all of you are the same’, which neutralises partygate as an issue,” he said. “It has muddied the waters, although with Labour it’s only one event and with the Tories there were over a dozen.”
Labour, which has sought to focus on the “cost-of-living crisis” ahead of the elections, seized on comments by environment secretary George Eustice on Wednesday that people could cope with rising prices by buying value brands instead of branded products.
Pat McFadden, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said the comments were “woefully out of touch” given the “real struggles” faced by millions.