Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner have been cleared of breaking lockdown rules during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Durham police investigated a campaign dinner held in Durham in April 2021 during the run-up to the Hartlepool by-election after the Labour leader and his deputy were accused of breaking lockdown rules for having a takeaway curry and beer with colleagues in a scandal that came to be known as “Beergate”.
In a statement, Durham Constabulary said that “there is no case to answer for a contravention of the regulations, due to the application of an exception, namely reasonably necessary work.”
The force added that after a “thorough, detailed and proportionate” investigation it would “not be issuing any fixed penalty notices in respect of the gathering and no further action will be taken”.
It was an issue that both Starmer and Rayner “staked their political careers on” after they promised to step down if issued with a fixed penalty notice, in a marked “contrast” with the departing prime minister Boris Johnson, who was sanctioned over a gathering in Downing Street, said the Financial Times.
In a statement made shortly after being cleared by police, Starmer said: “I’ve always said that no rules were broken when I was in Durham. The police have now completed their investigation and found that there is no case to answer.
“People said to me I was taking a risk by saying I would step down if I was fined. But it was never about that. For me, it was a matter of principle. It shouldn’t be controversial to say that those who make the law, can’t break the law.”
He went on to say that the bar should be set “far higher than that”, claiming he made the promise in order to change the minds of people who think politicians are out of touch and believe that “politics doesn’t matter”.
What were the allegations?
Separate allegations that the Labour leader ignored Covid guidance by attending a “birthday bash” in September 2020 have always been denied by Starmer and his party.
According to the Daily Mail, Starmer “tucked into” two cakes bought to celebrate his birthday. And while it “was not clear” how many other people “helped Sir Keir to eat the cakes in his office”, said the paper, coronavirus guidance at the time “advised against holding close social gatherings indoors”.
Gatherings of up to 30 people were permitted at the time, and hospitality venues were open, although the government recommended against get-togethers attended by more than six people.
The birthday party row broke out days after a Tory MP called for “a fresh investigation” into suggestions that Starmer also violated coronavirus restrictions by “having drinks with Labour Party staff in a constituency office in Durham”, The Telegraph said.
Following the Daily Mail’s cake claims, a Tory source said: “It now seems that, as well as sinking a few cold ones with mates at his infamous Durham drinks party, Sir Keir flouted the guidance in place for a little birthday bash.
“That is of course unless you believe that he popped out to a shop, bought himself a cake and sat alone eating it in his office. We know that Labour have lied about these things in the past so it makes you wonder what else they’re hiding. The stench of hypocrisy gets stronger by the day.”
Police initially said that Starmer would not be fined over the Durham drinks, despite “pressure from Conservative MPs”, The Times reported.
“Tories have argued that the occasion was a breach of lockdown rules similar to that committed by the prime minister,” the paper continued, with Starmer accused of hypocrisy.
In April, sources said that “Durham police did not suspect Starmer of breaking rules and did not take retrospective action on lockdown breaches”. The force took “the same approach” when Boris Johnson’s then adviser Dominic Cummings was found to have driven to Durham from London “when his family contracted the virus during lockdown”.
That same month, a Durham police spokesperson told Byline Times’s political editor Adam Bienkov that it was not reopening the investigation into Starmer, even after the Daily Mail claimed the force would “review” its decision to “let the Labour leader off”.
In a statement, Durham Constabulary said: “Earlier this year, Durham Constabulary undertook a review of video footage recorded in Durham on 30 April 2021.
“We stated that we did not believe an offence had been established in relation to the legislation and guidance in place at the time the footage was taken and would therefore take no further action in relation to the matter.”
That position then changed with a Labour spokesperson stating that the party is “obviously happy to answer any questions” during the police investigation, while restating that “we remain clear that no rules were broken”.
Then, in May, Durham Constabulary announced that an investigation would be carried out “following the receipt of significant new information over recent days”. Footage had emerged showing Starmer drinking a beer at the April 2021 gathering – a video filmed from outside a window.
“We’re obviously happy to answer any questions there are and we remain clear that no rules were broken,” said a Labour Party spokesperson.
With the investigation now concluded, Starmer has been cleared of any wrongdoing.