'What a joke': Keir Starmer responds to Boris Johnson Partygate apology

In February 2022, Labour leader Keir Starmer was cleared of breaking lockdown rules after he was filmed drinking a beer while having food in an office in April 2021.

Perhaps that should have been the end of the matter, but it certainly wasn't as last week, the Daily Mail dragged the story up again by publishing video evidence that deputy leader Angela Rayner joined Starmer at the event, forcing Labour to change course and admit she was present.

Since then, the publication has splashed a story about the event on its front pages most days, adding small details like the price of the food ordered and testimony from people who witnessed the scene, and other papers have accused Starmer of other breaches including eating a cake in his office.

Following this coverage, Durham Police confirmed it was reopening the case on 6th May.

What exactly is going on?

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Here's everything you need to know about the story.

What lockdown rules is Starmer and the Labour party accused of breaking?

Starmer was filmed swigging from a beer bottle in the City of Durham MP Mary Foy's office, on 30th April 2021, working in the run-up to the Hartlepool by-election, sparking accusations that he broke lockdown rules. At the time the country was in Step 2 out of lockdown three and people were prohibited from socialising with people outside their households but there were exceptions for key workers.

But speaking at the time the footage was published, Starmer defended his actions on LBC. He said no restaurants or pubs were open and the hotel in which he and colleagues were staying did not serve food, so “if you didn’t get a takeaway then our team wasn’t eating that evening”. He said they returned to work after eating the meal.

Asked if he was prepared to apologise, Starmer said: “We didn’t break any rules, we were working in the office and we stopped for a takeaway.”

He added: “We did nothing wrong.”

In February, a spokesperson for Durham's police force seemed to agree with him. They said: “We do not believe an offence has been established in relation to the legislation and guidance in place at that time and will therefore take no further action in relation to this matter.”

But in the wake of Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak's recent fines for attending an event in Downing Street in 2020 when the prime minister was "ambushed with a cake" on his birthday, some Tories have said the events are comparable, with Holden calling for Starmer's beer to be looked at again.

Reopening the case, The Mailinterviewed witnesses who claimed the event looked sociable to them: "I have never seen a work meeting with people sitting on tables, drinking San Miguel and standing around eating off plates," one reportedly said.

"They weren’t having a meeting. There is a clear difference between a meeting and what was happening there, which was entirely social.’"

Meanwhile, the situation has got stickier when the Labour party has admitted that Rayner was with Starmer at the event in question.

The party acknowledged it had previously told journalists she was not at the event last year, but a source insisted it was a “mistake made in good faith”.

The Sun also reports that an invitation was sent to activists for a “quiz and social” on the same day Starmer was in the Durham office, though Labour says it is not how it sounds. They have also revealed the party spent £200 on the takeaways and implied this was evidence the event was social, not work-related.

Finally,The Mail accuses Starmer of hypocrisy for reportedly eating cakes in his office on his birthday in September 2020, when guidance advised against social gatherings indoors.

What have the police said?

Originally, the police's response didn't change much.The Daily Mail initially said the police will "review" the Durham case but the police statement painted a different story. Durham Police told the MP it will "make enquiries" with the officers who first looked into claims against Starmer.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Durham Constabulary told the press: "[We] were sent a letter by Richard Holden MP on April 22.

"As a courtesy, we have replied to Mr Holden to confirm we have received that letter and will consider its contents before responding in due course."

And Labour said it was wrong to say the letter suggested an investigation into whether Starmer broke coronavirus rules was being re-examined.

A spokesman for the party told journalists: "I think some of the characterisation of the letter has been inaccurate." He said the incident in question was a "work event".

Starmer has also confirmed the police have not been in touch with him again.

But on 6th May, police said:

What have critics said?

Conservative MP Brendan Clarke Smith said: "For all their sanctimony about honesty and transparency, it's plain to see that Labour have not told the truth about Keir Starmer's lockdown drinks party.

"Why would they lie about Angela Rayner's presence if they thought the event was legal? It makes you wonder what else they are hiding."

And culture secretary Nadine Dorries has also been a vocal critic of the opposition leader:

What has the Labour party said?

But the Labour party has maintained its innocence. Earlier this week Starmer appeared on Good Morning Britain and said Durham police haven't contacted him in recent days following the Mail's continued coverage of the event.

This marked a change from earlier when he accused the Tories of chucking "mud" but didn't confirm whether they had been back in touch. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The police looked at this months ago and came to a clear conclusion that was ‘no rules were broken’, and that’s because no rules were broken.”

Starmer said: “We were working in the office, it was just before elections, we were busy, we paused for food … there was no party, no rules were broken, that is the long and the short of it.”

He added that “all that has happened in the past week is that with local elections on the horizon, Conservative MPs have decided to chuck mud”

Shadow work and pensions secretary Jon Ashworth recently told ITV News the two situations are "totally different".

"I don't think they are remotely comparable, frankly. First of all, the police are not investigating Keir Starmer, they've said he hasn't broke the rules.

"He said the difference is that police have issued 50 fines in relation to Downing Street parties and there the rules were broken by the same people who decided them.

"There's a pattern of behaviour across Downing Street with rules broken on umpteen occasions in the end Boris Johnson is responsible for Downing Street.

"It's his office, it's his home, and he enforced the rules so I frankly don't think the two are comparable."

And on the Sun's "social event" report, the party said the event was virtual and not connected to the Durham event.

Following the police reopening the case, the Labour Party said: “We’re obviously happy to answer any questions there are and we remain clear that no rules were broken.”

How have other people defended Starmer?

Other commentators have claimed press outlets emphasising the story are deflecting from examples of Conservatives breaking lockdown rules and are engaging in partisan attacks ahead of the local elections which take place tomorrow.

Journalist Owen Jones said:

While Adam Bienkov, another journalist said that when Starmer "had a birthday cake" the UK was not in lockdown:

Adam Wagner, a barrister and expert in Covid law posted a thread on Twitter, explaining the legal differences between the Starmer and Johnson cases, noting that Stamer's curry was not pre-arranged or purely social, unlike some of the alleged events that happened in Downing Street during lockdown:

When the Mail ran a story about the issue on Monday and used an image of Starmer eating a curry that was taken in 2015, it was criticised further for being misleading, though some said using stock photos was standard journalistic practice.

Labour MP Chris Bryant and Dorries had a tiff about the issue on Twitter:

People have also questioned the consistency of the Mail's editorial opinion, given their response to Johnson being fined over Partygate was to run the following front page, suggesting it was unimportant compared to the war in Ukraine:

And remember the MP who went to the police and asked them to look into the case again? Well, it turns out him and his team ate food while working too, on a night in the same week as Starmer did. The Mirror has the story here, suggesting a degree of hypocrisy.

Holden told the publication: “Alongside MPs from all parties, I was delighted to attend the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme briefing with the Gurkhas in Folkestone.

“All MPs had lunch of a curry dish and orange squash with our brave young recruits to learn about their lives back home to give us a better understanding of why they choose to serve in Britain’s armed forces.”

What do the public think?

Despite the ruckus, polling has revealed public perceptions about Stamer's conduct hasn't changed much. Take a look at the figures below:

Perhaps it is all just a storm in a beer glass.

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