- Keir Starmer has become embroiled in a scandal of his own, after saying Boris Johnson should resign.
- Tory MPs are calling for police to investigate "beergate" after Labour's response shifted as more evidence emerged.
- MPs fear it could exacerbate apathy at the polling stations, with local elections taking place Thursday.
A little under a month ago, Labour leader Keir Starmer made his boldest move yet. As Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak both received fines for attending a lockdown-busting birthday party for the prime minister, Starmer told the pair they had to go.
"They must both resign," the rival politician said back in April. "The Conservatives are totally unfit to govern. Britain deserves better."
However since then, Starmer has become mired in a row over his own attendance at an event that critics say broke the rules.
Now "beergate," as it has become known, has the potential to be even more damaging for Labour, just as the leader was showing sustained progress in the polls.
What is 'beergate'?
In January pictures emerged of Starmer drinking a beer during the Hartlepool by-election campaign on April 30, 2021. At the time, England was under 'step two' COVID rules, preventing people from socializing outside their household or support bubble.
Starmer has insisted throughout that it was a "work event," and that the picture and video that later emerged were taken while he and the rest of his campaign team were taking a break from work in City of Durham MP Mary Foy's office.
Speaking to the BBC Tuesday, the Labour leader said: "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."
He added: "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."
Why has it become an issue now?
The Conservative MP for North West Durham Richard Holden has accused Starmer of hypocrisy, and lying, as he called for the local police to look again at the incident.
"Does anyone really believe that 30 people drinking beer and tucking into curry at 10pm on a Friday is a work meeting?," he tweeted, referencing reports from The Sun that an Indian takeout meal was also ordered.
"What's good enough for Boris Johnson and people in the rest of the country is good enough for Keir Starmer."
Holden told LBC radio that Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, should face the same scrutiny as others, saying: "I am just asking for equality in the law."
"Labour's story has changed over the last few months since the police first looked at this. First of all Angela Rayner … wasn't there, now she definitely was but only because newspapers provided evidence of that.
"The students who did the video have said they want to give statements, so I think what we need now is a proper investigation — something Keir Starmer has hammered on about for month after month after month."
—Richard Holden MP (@RicHolden) April 27, 2022
Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary and one of Johnson's most vocal supporters, has joined calls for the police to investigate.
"Did all 30 really go back to work after they finished their biryanis [a type of curry]? If not, they have breached the rules and police should investigate," she said.
Clash of Durham MPs
Labour's Mary Kelly Foy – the City of Durham MP in whose office Starmer was picture drinking a beer – is accused of having verbally abused Holden at a bar in parliament over the row.
In a statement, Holden said he had accepted a "wholehearted apology from Ms Foy," who he said had "unprovoked … drunkenly approached, berated and grabbed me."
A Labour source told The Independent there had been a "bit of back and forth about politics generally," but confirmed Foy had apologised "in good faith".
How damaging could 'beergate' be for Keir Starmer?
With local elections across England on Thursday, the Tories are trying to push the argument that Starmer is just as bad as Johnson — if not worse.
But the latest polling suggests that it hasn't cut through to the extent they'd like to see.
A YouGov survey has found that "beergate" hasn't changed the dial: 42% of respondents said they believed Starmer had generally abided by COVID rules, while 70% said Johnson generally didn't.
—YouGov (@YouGov) May 3, 2022
But Starmer has a bigger problem about connecting with the public as he looks to rebuild trust following the 2019 election, in which voters turned away from his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn.
The Sun and the Mail both put the story on their front pages again today — the Mail for the seventh day in a row — reaching the kind of Red Wall voters that Starmer needs if he is going to turn his party's fortunes around.
While Starmer attempts to win back former voters, he is struggling with a fractious party and ebbing union support.
MPs on both sides have told Insider they believe "beergate" has the potential to be damaging for Labour, but rather than encouraging voters to opt for the Tories under Johnson, high voter apathy is forecast.
One Tory MP said turnout at the local elections could be as low as 20% as the electorate take a "plague on both houses" attitude.
While partygate has undoubtedly hurt the Tories, the party has already been on damage limitation footing, highlighting the usual mid-term slump and playing down the prospect of success in cities like London.
With current polling suggesting a big win for Labour, anything less than a gain of 800 seats in the locals would be seen as a failure, MPs told Insider.
"We know Labour MPs saying they have apathy on the doorstep too. But Starmer has to win 800 seats in a couple of days, so the pressure will turn back on him."