Keir Starmer’s office beer: what we know as investigation announced

Durham police are looking into claims the Labour leader may have broken lockdown rules last year

Keir Starmer faces an investigation by Durham police in connection with an event at which he was photographed holding a beer in April last year, and whether this potentially breached Covid rules at the time. Here is what we know:

What happened on Friday?

Following days of media coverage, and pressure from some Conservative MPs for police to act, the Durham force said that following “the receipt of significant new information over recent days” it would investigate what took place at the event on 30 April 2021.

What do we know about what happened?

Starmer was filmed through a window of the office of Mary Foy, the MP for the City of Durham, holding a bottle of beer, with people behind him eating from plates of food. The Labour leader was there as part of campaigning for the byelection in nearby Hartlepool, which was taking place six days later. The footage first emerged in January this year.

What was the police response – and what has changed?

In February, Durham police said there was no case to take any action over the matter. What has changed is firstly a campaign by some newspapers and MPs, and also the emergence of some new information, including that takeaway food was ordered for up to 20 or 30 people, and that Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, also attended, which the party initially said she had not. It is not known whether any of this is the “significant” new information, or if there are elements not yet reported.

Why has the news emerged now?

Police said last week they had received a number of further communications on the matter, but had no comment. It has been reported that the force had already decided to begin the investigation but delayed any announcement so as not to potentially interfere with the results of Thursday’s local elections. The Met police, who are investigating potential multiple breaches of Covid rules in and around Downing Street, similarly suspended any updates ahead of the elections.

Did Starmer breach any rules?

While Covid rules necessarily involve some interpretation, on the basis of what is known publicly so far, the legal and police consensus appears to be not. Political campaigning was permitted ahead of the local elections, which took place on the same day as the byelection, allowing gatherings of party activists. Starmer has said the images show campaigners breaking for takeaway food, and that with pubs and restaurants shut this was the only option if they were going to eat.

The barrister and Covid rules expert Adam Wagner has said this would be similar to colleagues eating in a work canteen and would thus be viewed as “reasonably necessary for work”. Wagner contrasted it with seemingly prearranged social events at Downing Street for which Boris Johnson and others have been fined.

However, this could change, depending on what new information has been passed to police.

What are the implications for Starmer and Labour?

While the party is confident no rules were broken, the announcement is deeply unwelcome, allowing political opponents to cast a moral and legal equivalence between Starmer and the prime minister, who has already received a fixed-penalty notice for one illicit gathering. Starmer called on Johnson to resign after the penalty, and for Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, to do the same after he also received one. So if Starmer was fined there would be pressure for him to step down.

Even if the police decide there is no case to answer, the investigation could drag on for some weeks.

What has Labour said in response?

A party spokesperson said: “We’re obviously happy to answer any questions there are and we remain clear that no rules were broken.”

Why did Labour initially say Angela Rayner was not there?

The party says it was a fairly standard press office cock-up. Party sources argue the question was asked some weeks ago by the Daily Mail, and a junior staff member misunderstood diary records and said Rayner was elsewhere. It was only when the Mail asked again, and officials checked, that they realised the mistake. It is not clear whether Rayner’s presence or not would change the legal position.

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