News that Durham Police will investigate claims that Sir Keir Starmer broke lockdown rules will come as a blow to the Labor leader, who thought he had put the incident behind him months ago.
But Labor will be relieved – and Conservatives furious – that the force held back the announcement of the new investigation, launched on 30 April, until after polling had closed in the local elections.
Durham Constabulary announced in February that it would take “no further action” after viewing video footage of Sir Keir that was taken through a window during the Labor leader’s visit to the city in April 2021.
The footage showed the Labor leader drinking from a bottle of beer, with other party workers in the same room, in the constituency offices of City of Durham MP Mary Foy.
At the time, the UK was in Step 2 of the phasing out of coronavirus restrictions, with pubs and restaurants permitted to serve outdoors, but indoor mixing between different households banned unless for essential work reasons.
Specific rules had been set out to allow Covid-secure campaigning for the 6 May local elections and for the Hartlepool by-election, which was the reason for Sir Keir’s visit to Durham that day.
Since the pictures first emerged, Sir Keir and his party have insisted that it was a work event, and that any food or alcohol consumed was part of the normal requirement for people to eat and drink while working.
Durham Police said in February that they had reviewed the video footage and would take “no further action”.
A spokesperson said then: “We do not believe an offense has been established in relation to the legislation and guidance in place at that time.”
However, the issue was revived last week by Tory MP Richard Holden, who wrote to Durham’s chief constable Jo Farrell urging her to reopen the investigation.
With local elections less than a fortnight away and looking set to be dominated by Partygate, the move appeared to be part of a determined attempt by the Conservatives to take the sting out of Labor attacks.
While deputy chief constable Ciaron Irvine did not at that point say that the force would review the incident, his promise to make inquiries with the original investigation team was seized upon by the Tories and their supporters as an indication that Sir Keir was once again under suspicion .
Labour’s position was undermined when the party was forced to admit that deputy leader Angela Rayner had been present in the room, saying that its previous denials were mistaken.
And Conservative-leaning newspapers devoted their front pages day after day to the supposed scandal, establishing that a curry order totaling £200 was put in for up to 30 aides late that evening.
Questions were asked as to whether Starmer and his team had gone back to work, possibly as late as 11pm, after consuming the meal.
The row provided Conservative candidates with a response to voters who raised the matter of Partygate on the doorstep, effectively suggesting that while Boris Johnson may have breached rules, other politicians had done the same.
It meant that Sir Keir was repeatedly forced onto the defensive in TV and radio interviews. And it made Labor campaigners hold back on criticisms of Mr Johnson over Partygate, for fear of throwing the spotlight once more onto their own leader.
Sir Keir always insisted he was happy to cooperate with police and was confident that they would find no Covid restrictions had been broken.
“We were working, we stopped, we ate,” he said. “No breach of the rules. No party.”
Labor insists that the incident – branded “Keir’s beers” by critics – bears no comparison with the string of parties held in Downing Street during Covid restrictions.
The Metropolitan Police are investigating 12 such events, including some that were explicitly intended as social events, including a number of leaving dos and a “bring your own booze” party in the No 10 garden.
Some observers suggest that the Labor leader overplayed his hand by calling for the resignation, not only of the prime minister, but also of chancellor Rishi Sunak after the pair received £50 fines for attending Mr Johnson’s birthday party in No 10 in June 2020.
Suggesting that Mr Sunak’s inadvertent involvement, which arose from his turning up a few minutes early for a meeting, is a matter for resignation sets a very low bar, which may come back to bite Sir Keir if he is fined by Durham Police.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.