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Keir Starmer ‘not ducking scrutiny’ over Covid questions, ally insists

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (PA)

Sir Keir Starmer is not “ducking scrutiny” by pulling out of an event where he would have faced fresh questions over claims he broke coronavirus rules, a Labour frontbencher has insisted.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting defended the Labour leader against what he described as Tory mud-slinging but admitted he had “no idea” why Sir Keir cancelled Monday’s event.

Labour has not given an explanation as to why Sir Keir’s attendance at the Institute for Government discussion was cancelled, other than to say “plans change”.

Sir Keir would have been expected to take questions from the media, as he is investigated by police over the Durham beer-and-curry gathering in April last year.

Labour insists the food was consumed between work events, meaning it was within the rules despite the ban on indoor socialising.

But the Labour leader was facing calls to answer fresh questions after a leaked memo suggested the takeaway was planned, with no further work apparently scheduled after dinner.

Asked about why Sir Keir scrapped his appearance, Mr Streeting told BBC Breakfast: “I have no idea why he cancelled the event and I certainly didn’t ask before I came on because I think it’s such a trivial issue.

“The idea that Keir has been dodging questions… I mean he’s been out all weekend, even after a local election campaign where we did very well, he’s been out thanking Labour teams, particularly in the places that we did particularly well in these elections.”

Wes Streeting
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting defended the Labour leader (PA)

Mr Streeting added that Sir Keir has faced journalists “wherever he’s been”, including as recently as Saturday, adding: “The idea that Keir is somehow ducking scrutiny is simply not true.”

Conservative universities minister Michelle Donelan accused Sir Keir of hypocrisy, having pressured Boris Johnson over Downing Street lockdown breaches, for which the Prime Minister was fined by police.

Asked if the Labour leader should resign if fined, she told Sky News: “I think this is a decision for him, he’s going to have to search his soul after making this a top priority over the last few months at the expense of key issues like the rising cost of living, etc, but look, this is a decision for him.

“My takeaway is that it does smack of sheer hypocrisy.”

Some 46% of Britons believe Sir Keir should resign if he is fined by police, according to a YouGov survey of 1,674 adults over the weekend.

That includes 48% of those who voted Labour at the last election, which is higher than those who voted Tory, at 40%.

With the police investigation ongoing, 54% responded that Sir Keir either probably or definitely broke the rules.

Labour MP Mary Foy denied reports that staff were drunk at the event held in the City of Durham MP’s constituency office.

In a statement, she said: “These allegations about my staff are untrue.

“I have already said that I and my team were working during a very busy period, including facilitating the leader’s visit. I do not believe either I or my office staff broke any rules.”

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Pressed why Sir Keir pulled out of Monday’s discussion, a Labour spokesperson said: “Plans change.”

At the time of the Durham gathering, non-essential retail and outdoor venues including pub gardens were open, but social distancing rules – which included a ban on indoor mixing between households – remained in place.

Sir Keir previously said no restaurants or pubs were open at the time of the alleged breach so “if you didn’t get a takeaway then our team wasn’t eating that evening”.

Labour has indicated that as Sir Keir was working the meal did not constitute a social event.

Sir Keir, a former director of public prosecutions, told reporters on Saturday: “As I have explained a number of times, I was working in the office, we stopped for something to eat.

“There was no party, no breach of rules, I am confident of that.”

He said he would not resign and would lead Labour into the next general election.