As he returned from celebrating Labour’s local election gains in Barnet on Friday afternoon, Sir Keir Starmer decided he would be forced to stake his entire political career on a curry he had eaten 12 months before.
While activists were jubilant that Labour had seized control of three London councils, their leader sat in the party’s headquarters and struck a serious tone with his closest aides. He was seriously considering announcing he intended to resign if he was fined over “beergate”.
The story, which had plagued Sir Keir for almost two weeks, came to a head on Friday lunchtime, when The Telegraph reported that police were launching a full-scale police inquiry into his decision to eat curry and drink beer with staff while campaigning in Durham in April 2021.
“On Friday, when Keir came back to Southside, he was already of the opinion that it was the right thing to do,” said one aide who spoke to him that afternoon. “We knew that the decision had been made.”
Sir Keir decided he “didn’t want to trample on the good result in Scotland” by making an announcement immediately. With election results still rolling in from across the UK, he told those around him he would instead return to the issue on Monday.
Sir Keir spent Sunday afternoon at the Emirates Stadium with his son, watching his beloved Arsenal win 2-1 against Leeds, as rumours swirled about his political future and one of his most high-profile shadow ministers refused to rule herself out of any leadership race.
But aides were instructed to clear his diary on Monday, cancelling a speech at the Institute for Government think tank and his appearance at a memorial service for James Brokenshire, the Tory MP who died of cancer last year.
While Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Cameron and other dignitaries filed into St Margaret’s Church in the shadow of Westminster Abbey to remember him, there were two empty seats on pew nine – reserved for Sir Keir and his wife, Victoria.
Instead, the Labour leader was in a crisis meeting in his office in Parliament’s Norman Shaw South building, where he had gathered his six closest advisers to discuss issuing a statement, confirming he would resign if fined by Durham police.
“He wanted to sit down with the team and talk it through,” a Labour insider said. “They thrashed out the arguments for and against.”
At 11.45am, while the meeting still had half an hour to run, the news that Sir Keir was considering a statement leaked to The Times and was published online, prompting speculation about his future as leader. Odds on his immediate departure were slashed.
One aide speculated that the news had even been leaked to the press by someone who was in the room with Sir Keir, helping him to discuss his options.
At around 3pm, the Labour leader travelled back to the party’s Southside headquarters, where he delivered a press conference.
“I simply had something to eat while working late in the evening, as any politician would do days before an election,” he told three broadcast reporters who had been summoned for the occasion.
“But if the police decide to issue me with a fixed penalty notice, I would of course do the right thing and step down.”
Friends say there was never any chance he would not commit to resigning if he was found to have broken the law, since as a former director of public prosecutions, he would consider it demeaning to the office he holds.
“It is genuinely true that this is the stuff he believes,” one told The Telegraph. “When he was criticising the PM, he genuinely believes it.”
While those around him claim the statement was a “matter of principle”, it also offers Labour a political advantage – putting the onus over lockdown-breaking parties back on to Mr Johnson, who could receive another Metropolitan Police fine at any time.
But the decision to place his career in the hands of Durham police could also prompt a slew of more revelations from those who want to see him forced from office.
“A big risk for them is that people are obviously leaking against him,” said a source. “It could turn into a feeding frenzy.”
Others diagnose Sir Keir with “Sunakism” – comparing his failure to recognise the seriousness of the “beergate” allegations to Rishi Sunak’s ostrich-like approach to news of his wife’s tax affairs.
They say the story has the potential to get bigger still and suggest his attempt to take back the moral high ground over Covid could fall flat.
Sir Keir has also strapped himself to Angela Rayner, his deputy, who most likely would also receive a fine if he was issued one.
She has also committed to resign in that scenario, prompting insiders to begin speculation about who might replace them both.
Wes Streeting, Yvette Cooper and Lisa Nandy are often namechecked by those discussing a future leadership race.
For the time being, Conservative MPs have called a ceasefire – after Chris Heaton-Harris, the Chief Whip, reportedly warned that arguments in favour of Sir Keir’s resignation could backfire on the Prime Minister, who has already been fined once but is still under investigation.
An adviser to a Cabinet minister urged caution from the Tory benches and suggested Sir Keir’s critics would be wise to wait for the outcome of Durham police’s investigation.
The force itself came under scrutiny on Monday as Emily Thornberry, one of Labour’s shadow ministers, suggested it had succumbed to political pressure and would “have to answer themselves” the question of whether they had yielded to “the media [and] Conservative MPs”.
“Anyone standing back and looking at this with an open mind can see that attempts have been made to put pressure on Durham police,” she said.
Others think that the announcement itself also puts pressure on the police, as it effectively hands them the power to fire one of the most senior politicians in Britain.
A Labour source told ITV that the decision may balance the lobbying of the force, “who are being leant on in one direction” by Tory MPs.
While officers investigate the facts of the matter, Sir Keir’s strategy with voters is based on the gamble that they will believe him when he says he believes “in honour, integrity and the principle that those who make the laws must follow them”.
But for some, the “beergate” scandal is one too many and will damage both Sir Keir and Westminster at large irreversibly in the minds of the public.
“If [the statement] neutralises the issue, while it’s good for us, it’s terribly bad for politics,” a former Tory minister said.
“It just provides yet more evidence that all politicians are awful”.
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( Information from telegraph.co.uk was used in this report. To Read More, click here )