Keir Starmer is accused of flouting Covid rules banning political campaigners from meeting indoors during local ballots last year

  • Keir Starmer was accused of flouting Covid guidance on political campaigning 
  • The Labour leader was pictured drinking with colleagues in Durham last April
  • Sir Keir said the event was for purposes of ‘running an election campaign’

Sir Keir Starmer was accused last night of flouting Covid guidance which banned political campaigners from meeting indoors during last year’s local elections.

The Labour leader was pictured drinking beer with Labour colleagues in a constituency office in Durham last April, just days before the vote.

The event – which Sir Keir said was for the purposes of ‘running an election campaign’ – took place even though ‘step two’ rules banned household mixing indoors.

Sir Keir Starmer was pictured drinking beer with Labour colleagues in a constituency office in Durham last April, just days before the vote

Now it has emerged that the event may also have breached special guidelines published for the local election campaign.

This guidance said campaigners should not meet indoors and there should be no social use of committee rooms.

It also stated that work organising campaigns should be done virtually and should not take place in person.

Yesterday Sir Keir refused three times to apologise for his presence at the meeting, and denied he was a ‘hypocrite’ after a caller to a radio station said he had done ‘exactly the same thing’ as Boris Johnson.

As pressure on the Labour leader mounted, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi demanded that he say sorry, just as the Prime Minister had done for his behaviour.

Tory MP David Morris said: ‘The guidance covering the 2021 local elections, which the Labour Party was consulted on, is clear as day: “You should not meet with other campaigners indoors”.

Yesterday Sir Keir refused three times to apologise for his presence at the meeting, and denied he was a ‘hypocrite’ after a caller to a radio station said he had done ‘exactly the same thing’ as Boris Johnson

‘Sir Keir needs to explain why it was OK for him to ignore this and drink indoors with his comrades.’

A senior Conservative source added: ‘The stench of hypocrisy coming off Sir Beer is growing more pungent by the day.

‘He’s been very quick to criticise people who met outdoors during this time but thinks it was absolutely fine for him to sink some beer and have a bite to eat with his mates indoors.’ Labour said no rules had been broken.

A spokesman said: ‘Keir follows the rules at all times.’

The local elections guidance, published in March last year, stated: ‘You should not meet with other campaigners indoors.

‘It is safer to meet outdoors, where the risk of catching or spreading Covid-19 is much lower, but two-metre social distancing should still be maintained.’

It went on: ‘Meetings to organise and plan campaigns should be held online or over the phone. They should not take place in person.’

Sir Keir, pictured, was accused last night of flouting Covid guidance which banned political campaigners from meeting indoors during last year’s local elections

The guidance also cautioned against the use of committee rooms, saying: ‘Any such activity should be functional and not social… It is against the law to meet socially indoors with anyone not in your household or support bubble.’

Yesterday, Sir Keir appeared on Nick Ferrari’s show on LBC Radio, where he confirmed the event was for the purposes of campaigning.

A caller, identified as ‘Jonathan from Taunton’, confronted him, saying: ‘You have been very vociferous and vocal with your attacks on Boris Johnson and his behaviour regards the parties that he either has or hasn’t attended.

‘And yet you have done exactly the same. And although you will couch it differently you have done exactly the same thing.

‘You were in an enclosed room with a load of people, not socially distanced. No face masks. Drinking beer. Late at night. It’s the same.

‘And therefore you should also resign if you’re calling for Boris Johnson to, or make a full and fulsome apology to everybody and stop being a hypocrite.’

Sir Keir replied: ‘The picture of me was in a constituency office up in the North East. It was, I think, three or four days before the May elections so we were really busy. I was with my team going across the country from place to place.

‘We are in the office, working in the office and we stopped for a takeaway and then we carried on working. And that is the long and the short of it.

‘There was no breach of the rules. There was no party and there was absolutely no comparison with the Prime Minister.’

Sir Keir declined three times to apologise for the ‘look’ of the pictures. He said: ‘We didn’t break any rules. I understand what’s going on here…there comes a point at which the Tories try to take everyone into the gutter with them.’

Speaking earlier on LBC, Mr Zahawi said: ‘What I saw in that video is Keir Starmer swigging a bottle of beer, other people around him indoors – not even in an outdoor space.

‘I don’t see how he can differentiate that it was a different type of event to what the Prime Minister went to in his garden to motivate his workforce.

‘As someone who’s lost a loved one, all I’d expect was an apology. There was no apology with this – he tried to just bulldoze his way through.

‘We expect our politicians to be held to high standards and when you’ve made a mistake – it looks from that video like Keir Starmer made a mistake – he should apologise for it.’

Consumer rights champion Martin Lewis told the BBC Politics Live show: ‘Keir Starmer will have to take a hard look at what he did and whether he should be saying he didn’t quite get it right.’

But he added: ‘The big difference is Keir Starmer isn’t making the rules: Boris Johnson is the one making the rules.’ 

How he spurned 3 chances to say sorry 

LBC radio host Nick Ferrari: Why is drinking within a constituency office in Durham for a working meeting permissible while having drinks outside in the garden after a busy day of work is not permissible?

Sir Keir: There’s trestle tables on the grass, which have got bottles of wine on them… That is a million miles away from a takeaway in a constituency between meetings.

Ferrari: You won’t apologise.

Sir Keir: Honestly, there were two parties [at Downing Street] the night before Prince Philip’s funeral with wine in suitcases.

Ferrari: Your point of a culture is very well made… but just for the look that it gave, Sir Keir, are you prepared to apologise?

Sir Keir: We didn’t break any rules. We were working in the office and we stopped for a takeaway. I understand what’s going on here, which is exactly what happened with Owen Paterson, and that there comes a point at which the Tories try to take everyone into the gutter with them.

Ferrari: For the look of it, you’re not prepared to apologise.

Sir Keir: We did nothing wrong.

The self-appointed Witchfinder General of Covid parties must now apologise

Commentary by Tom Harris, an ex-Labour MP

The British public dislike being preached to and hectored. And we especially don’t like it when self-righteous politicians give every appearance of breaking rules that they have imposed on everyone else.

Until last week, this was an accusation thrown – with some justification – by Labour at Boris Johnson and other members of his Downing Street operation, as the scandal of ‘Partygate’ has unfolded.

But now that accusation has rebounded in embarrassing fashion at Keir Starmer himself. It emerged over the weekend that during last year’s local elections campaign, the Labour leader shared a few jolly drinks over a takeaway in the constituency office of a parliamentary colleague, alongside staff.

Indoor mixing between different households was banned at the time except for in-work scenarios, while drinking indoors in pubs was also prohibited.

And last April, when the event in Durham took place, the Government was telling people to work from home where possible.

Starmer seems to have flouted these restrictions. And as the Daily Mail reveals today, he appears to have breached the Government’s own specific guidance on electoral campaigning, too.

Using ‘committee rooms’ at all – thought to include constituency offices such as the one the beer-swigging Starmer was pictured in – needed to be ‘rigorously considered’, according to government guidance.

If such rooms were used, the document continued, this should be only ‘in accordance with the prevailing guidance on gathering and hygiene and social distancing…any such activity should be functional and not social’.

Campaigners were expected to wear face masks and their activities ‘should be organised on a one-by-one basis’.

Needless to say, this does not cover quaffing drinks and laughing your unmasked head off with a large group of people – windows shut.

On the face of it, Starmer seems to have flouted the guidance on campaigning he should have followed to the letter. Exactly what ‘work’ needed to be done in that room that he couldn’t have done from home?

Yet Starmer himself has repeatedly insisted no rules were broken on April 30, 2021. ‘We were working, a takeaway turned up and we stopped to eat it,’ he told a radio station yesterday.

‘We didn’t break any rules, we did nothing wrong.’

As a result, he stoutly claims, he has no need to apologise. I remind you that it’s the Prime Minister, not the Labour leader, who is supposed to be the arrogant one here!

And as I was a Labour MP for 14 years – I know what the run-up to elections is like. It’s a stressful and demanding time, with punishing hours.

But what, I wonder, is so special about local elections that they require alcohol-fuelled social mixing? Boris Johnson has said he believed his own Downing Street garden party back in 2020 to be a ‘work event’.

But Starmer didn’t accept the Prime Minister’s word on this: instead, he called him a liar and piously told him to resign, while discarding the humiliating apology that Boris offered both the Commons and the country for what had happened under his watch.

God knows the Prime Minister is far from perfect. Yet, in recent days, Starmer seems to have been enjoying his self-righteous rhetoric a little too much.

Even his official spokesman intones that her boss ‘follows the rules at all times… honesty and decency are non-negotiable for him’.

For a politician to depict himself as the reincarnation of St Francis of Assisi is a risky strategy. Why? Because, sooner or later, your unimpeachable moral goodness will bump into reality.

Like all human beings, you will make a mistake – and if you’ve hoisted yourself up on to a giant pedestal, there will be plenty only too willing to shove you off it and roll you into the harbour.

Starmer’s biggest problem is not that some will now seek to accuse him of hypocrisy.

His greater risk is that voters – especially the swing voters he needs to target – are likely to conclude all politicians are the same.

That conclusion would undermine the progress he knows he has made as leader – including leap-frogging the Government in recent polls.

And that’s why he probably feels he has no choice – even as the evidence against him mounts – to continue to insist he has done nothing wrong.

Sir Keir earlier this month. He has repeatedly insisted no rules were broken on April 30, 2021

Now, it may yet prove to be the case that in some tricksy legal sense (and as a former director of public prosecutions, Sir Keir is all too aware of the value of technicalities), he didn’t break Covid rules on that beer-soaked night in Durham.

But in the court of public opinion – rather than the more high-minded courts with which Starmer is most familiar – technicalities don’t matter.

The ‘optics’, as spin-doctors say, are everything. And the fact is that Starmer, who has appointed himself the Witchfinder General of the Government’s Partygate travails, now looks like he has broken the rules he sought to impose on everyone else, and to which he has mercilessly held the Prime Minister.

That is why he now needs to apologise. After all, the Labour leader has been loudest throughout the pandemic in demanding ever-tougher restrictions.

Those who make or seek to make the rules that govern our lives need to stick to them – and look like they do. Anything else risks undermining democracy itself.

Millions obeyed the rules, and even went even further for almost two long years. Others were fined and shamed on social media for breaking them. Starmer needs to apologise to both these groups.

He has made a serious misjudgement, then. But we must also point out that the much-changing regulations, enforced differently in different parts of the UK over many months, have often been complicated, contradictory and hard to follow. How assiduously had Starmer read that particular government document on elections, published on March 25, 2021, amid the sea of other Covid restrictions?

The endlessly shifting nature of the rules has not made sticking to them easy. And since they were ultimately set out by politicians, they were subject to human whim and foible.

Starmer knows all this. How refreshing it would be if he now came forward and admitted that he made a mistake – while pointing out the inconsistencies in those same rules.

I will not join those voices demanding his resignation. This is a lazy tactic in modern politics, though one becoming more common by the day.

I have never called publicly for anyone to resign and it would be helpful if politicians stopped doing so all the time.

But if I have one hope, it is that this sorry episode gives Starmer and the rest of his party a moment to pause. Labour, decades of membership taught me, has an irresistible urge to occupy the moral high ground on every issue.

It’s not enough for them to argue over policy: they need to assert Harold Wilson’s misguided dictum that Labour is nothing if it is not a moral crusade.

But it’s not. Labour is just another political party with its own agenda, trying to win office.

To err is human, as the ex-prosecutor Sir Keir knows. But to pretend that anyone is perfect, well, that’s only Labour’s view of itself.

If only Starmer would now see that inconsistency – and tell the country he is sorry. 

TOM HARRIS was Labour MP for Glasgow South from 2001 to 2015

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