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Sir Keir Starmer has been accused of hypocrisy by Tories as he faced a police investigation into a lockdown curry and beer with colleagues.
Durham Constabulary is investigating claims an evening event attended by the Labour leader with other senior party figures and activists while campaigning last year might have broken pandemic social distancing regulations.
Cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi questioned why Sir Keir was not resigning after the Labour leader had called for Boris Johnson to quit while under investigation over the No 10 partygate row.
Labour allies of Sir Keir insisted he would be cleared by police and there was a sharp contrast between him and the Prime Minister.
Durham Police said they had U-turned on an earlier decision on the case that no offence had been committed after receiving “significant new information”.
Police have not revealed what additional details sparked the probe but The Times reported a “key factor” was confirmation deputy leader Angela Rayner attended the evening. Labour had previously denied she had been present.
The Daily Telegraph said the so-called “beergate” investigation will take up to six weeks, with those suspected of having breached lockdown rules due to be sent questionnaires.
Sir Keir, a former director of public prosecutions, told reporters on Friday in London – having returned from a victory lap around the country following Labour local elections successes – he did not believe the event had breached the rules.
“The public will be uncomfortable with the hypocrisy.”
— Times Radio (@TimesRadio) May 7, 2022
This message was repeated by allies on Saturday, with shadow health secretary Wes Streeting telling the BBC that he would not “entertain” the prospect of Sir Keir resigning over alleged lockdown rule-breaking last April.
“I have absolute faith and confidence that Keir Starmer did the right thing all the way along,” he said.
“He’s maintained that all the way along. He’s someone who practices what he preaches, and as I say the police have looked at this before and found no case to answer.
“We’re confident that’ll be the case this time. I think the contrast between Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson will be even sharper because I do think it’s ridiculous, actually, after everything that we’ve seen Boris Johnson is still there and Conservative MPs haven’t removed Boris Johnson.”
Sir Keir had called for Mr Johnson to resign because he was under investigation by Scotland Yard and asked why the Labour leader was not following his own standard, Mr Streeting said: “Police looked at this before, they found no case to answer, no action was taken.
“We expect that to be the outcome now.”
Honesty and decency matter.
After months of denials the Prime Minister is now under criminal investigations for breaking his own lockdown laws.
He needs to do the decent thing and resign.
— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) January 31, 2022
Asked whether Sir Keir would resign if he had broken the law, shadow Welsh secretary Jo Stevens told Times Radio: “I think if we get to that situation – which I think is extremely unlikely on the basis that Durham Police have already investigated this complaint and found that no rules have been broken – I’m sure Keir will make a statement at that point.
“I think that this is a non-story, a kind of smear that’s been going on to time with the local elections to try and hold up a Tory party that is so badly damaged by the behaviour of the prime minister.”
— LBC (@LBC) May 7, 2022
Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said Sir Keir should “consider his position” if he is fined.
“I think if he actually gets a fixed-penalty notice he really has to consider his position,” she told LBC.
“I don’t think he will, I think this is a lot of hype built up by the Tory press, but if he were to get a fixed penalty notice he would have to consider his position.”
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Times Radio: “We’ve got to let the police carry out their investigation and that’s only right and responsible.
“I do think, though, that the public will be uncomfortable with the hypocrisy. I think he’s used one in three of his PMQs to talk about parties instead of focusing on the cost of living.
“He has tweeted himself saying that if you’re under investigation, a criminal investigation, then you should resign.”
The police faced mounting pressure in the final weeks of the local election campaign to re-examine allegations of wrongdoing by the opposition leader.
This came after footage emerged of Sir Keir drinking a beer at a constituency office in Durham in April 2021 while campaigning for the Hartlepool by-election.
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.
Sir Keir previously said no restaurants or pubs were open at the time of the alleged offence and the hotel he and his colleagues were staying in did not serve food, so “if you didn’t get a takeaway then our team wasn’t eating that evening”.
In January, Sir Keir said the Prime Minister “needs to do the decent thing and resign” after he became embroiled in lockdown breach allegations.
Ms Rayner also questioned Mr Johnson’s suitability as PM, writing on Twitter: “Boris Johnson’s Downing Street is under police investigation, how on Earth can he think he can stay on as Prime Minister?”
Mr Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are among those to have already been fined for breaking Covid laws.