“At some point, this was in the evening, everybody’s hungry and a takeaway was ordered,” Keir Starmer told Good Morning Britain viewers this morning when challenged over ‘beergate’. The Labour leader stressed that the incident in Durham was a work event: he and his team were working late in the final days before last year’s local elections. He explained to presenters Susanna Reid and Richard Madeley that they were in the office that evening partly because they were doing an online ‘get out the vote’ event for members. Starmer said he was also doing pre-recorded pieces to camera.
Above all, however, he argued that working late in this way is part and parcel of campaign life, staying in the office to clear documents and prepare for the following day. “This is what we do when we’re on the road, because we’re out all day,” he said. Reid argued that the incident sounded similar to the birthday cake event for which Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have received fines. Starmer rejected this, saying that all restaurants and pubs were closed in Durham at the time “so takeaways were really the only way you could eat”. He told viewers that the curry was put in the kitchen and “people went through to the kitchen, got a plate, had something to eat and got on with their work”.
Starmer’s response to the initial question about the incident (“Let me take that head on”) suggests he is aware that his failure to answer questions directly on Tuesday was not received well. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, he refused to say whether Durham police had contacted him recently about the incident. It was quickly revealed following the interview that the police had not been in touch, a fact Starmer made sure to underline during today’s interview, telling viewers: “No, I think they put out a statement last week saying they’re not reinvestigating. They haven’t spoken to me.”
This is not the only way in which Labour has been unclear in its response to beergate. The party at first said Angela Rayner was not in attendance in Durham before confirming over the weekend that she was – the initial incorrect statement attributed to a “mistake” from Starmer’s “busy office”. This is dangerous ground for Labour. Discussing the Prime Minister’s response to ‘partygate’ allegations, including breaking his own rules and being dishonest, Rayner said in March: “I don’t see how he can continue in his role when he’s not told the truth to the British public.”
That Starmer’s beer is equivalent to Johnson’s birthday bash, or the multiple other social gatherings that the police are investigating, is not convincing. Covid rules when Starmer was in Durham stated that indoor gatherings were legal if “reasonably necessary” for a campaign. But the extent to which Tory MPs and the right-wing press have latched on to the story (the Mail has it on its front page today for the seventh day in a row) could spell trouble for Labour, even if only by distracting from the government’s law-breaking.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.