Here’s why the Tories are so obsessed with Starmer’s ‘Beergate’ saga

A party leader attempting to get their message out ahead of local elections only to be frustrated by repeated questions about Covid breaches during lockdown. This was how Tory and Labour strategists alike expected Boris Johnson’s electoral campaign to play out. Only with one day to go until polling day, it’s actually Keir Starmer on the receiving end.

These days the Labour leader can’t get through an interview without being pressed on “Beergate” – an incident last April when he was pictured drinking a beer indoors in Durham with Labour staff while the rest of England was under stage 2 Covid rules (meaning no socialising outside of your own household or bubble).

Starmer has insisted that all rules were followed and that it was a work event. Egter, the Tories are on a campaign to draw equivalence between that event and the birthday cake event that Johnson and his chancellor Rishi Sunak were fined over. Richard Holden, the MP for North West Durham and a former political adviser, is leading efforts to get the police to re-examine the case (after they found there had been no wrongdoing earlier this year).

On Tuesday’s Today programme Starmer refused not once but four times to say whether Durham police had been back in touch over the event. On Wednesday‘s Good Morning Britain he confirmed the police had not contacted him and offered a full account of the night, insisting curry was ordered as restaurants were closed and people “at various points” ate the curry and “got on with their work”. It doesn’t help matters that Labour has had to change its line regarding Angela Rayner’s attendance at the event.

Starmer’s frustration at the line of questioning is clear for all to see. But for the Tories, Beergate couldn’t come at a better time. On the WhatsApp group of loyal Boris Johnson supporters – set up at the peak of Partygate to bolster support for the prime minister – “Labour hypocrisy” is the discussion point of the day – with MPs encouraging one another to push it.

The culture secretary, and Johnson loyalist, Nadine Dorries has been out on the front foot – declaring on social media: “The man who wants to one day be Prime Minister cannot behave like this. He has a responsibility to be open, honest and transparent with the public #Beergate.”

For the bulk of Tory MPs, there is little equivalence between Starmer drinking a beer and the most serious allegations against the prime minister from an alleged party in the No 10 flat to the infamous BYOB bash in the garden. This is in part why when the story first emerged earlier this year it gained little traction.

Egter, the fact that the only event Johnson has been fined for so far involved a birthday cake between work meetings, means that MPs in the centre of the party are now willing to embrace it.

There’s a sense that Starmer has overplayed his hand. When Johnson and Sunak received a fixed penalty notice for attending an event at work with birthday cake between meetings, he was quick to call for both the prime minister and the chancellor to resign.

“He called for the chancellor to resign when he was five minutes early to a meeting,” says a Tory MP in the centre of the party. “They set their own bar and now they have fallen victim to it.”

Another reason Tory aides are pushing the story so hard is that it’s helping to neuter Labour’s Partygate attacks. Labour politicians appearing in the media are far more likely to focus on other issues – such as the cost of living – for fear of being questioned about beergate if they try and go on Johnson’s Covid rule breaking.

For the Tory party, the most important thing the row has done is given MPs something to on Partygate. Other than ultra loyalists, the bulk of MPs have been staying silent on the issue of parties for fear of more coming out – whether that’s further fines or an embarrassing photo. Now they have a holding position – they can partake in a good bit of “whataboutery” in the hope it will leave some voters to conclude that they will simply stay at home rather than cast an anti-Tory protest vote.

It’s a line that has its limits. “It’s essentially: ‘all politicians are as bad as each other’,” says a senior Tory. It could also soon be out of date if fines for more serious events come up the track – such as the alleged Downing Street flat party (the event that worries government aides most).

But for now, met die Tories braced for a dismal showing on Thursday, anything that derails or dampens Starmer’s efforts is the order of the day.




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