Aides of Labour’s right-wing leader are scrabbling to cover for him after he pulled out of a major speech ahead of the State Opening of Parliament.
Starmer had been due to make a speech and take questions at an event on “challenges the country faces” organised by the Institute for Government think tank, but pulled out without explanation after Durham Police announced it would re-investigate the alleged Beergate affair.
This alleges that Starmer attended an event in Durham in April last year, when he drank beer and ate a curry with colleagues. At the time, Covid-19 social distancing rules meant it was illegal for people in England to socialise indoors with people from outside their household or support bubble, although there was an exemption for “work purposes”
Starmer had claimed that it was a work event, and food and drink had been consumed in between doing work – but the police investigation was reopened after a leaked memo obtained by the Mail of Sunday revealed it was in fact pre-planned, with time scheduled for “dinner” after which the event would conclude.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting tried to dismiss the matter when he was challenged over it on BBC Breakfast: “I have no idea why he cancelled the event and I certainly didn’t ask before I came on because I think it’s such a trivial issue.
“The idea that Keir is somehow ducking scrutiny is simply not true.”
Shadow “levelling-up”, housing and communities secretary Lisa Nandy fared a little better when she said, “It is frankly absurd of the Tories to claim that this in any way equates to a prime minister who was under investigation by the police for 12 separate gatherings which included karaoke parties, bring your own bottle parties, pub quizzes, suitcases full of wine being smuggled through the back door.”
But then she ruined it by adding, “This is a guy who self-isolated six times during the pandemic.” That’s not altogether vindicating as some of us suggested he was running away from scrutiny some of those times as well.
And Labour is not united on this matter; the issue has re-awakened splits between factions on the left and right of the party.
Diane Abbott said yesterday Starmer would have to “consider his position” if police hand him a fine.
Emily Ferguson in the I newspaper said this could be the least of Starmer’s troubles:
Even if police decide not to issue him a fine, officers could still brand the event as a minor breach of rules – as they did with former No 10 aide Dominic Cummings’ infamous Barnard Castle trip.
Such a scenario would leave Sir Keir in limbo and vulnerable to a coup from Labour MPs unhappy that he may have jeopardised the party’s hopes of returning to government.
The allegation and incriminating photo will linger in voters’ minds. In the eyes of the public his image is tainted and for some, Sir Keir can no longer hold the moral high ground of being the Opposition leader who fiercely followed Covid rules throughout.
[Starmer] has his work cut out over the next few months as he will need to keep a lid on internal disputes and prevent the fractious divides within Labour from re-emerging, convince voters he is capable of leading the country, all whilst holding the Government to account on the cost-of-living crisis.
On the basis of today’s (non-)performance, he’s not going to manage it.
People will see his withdrawal from a major event – without explanation – as exactly what it is:
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