3 May 2022

What the focus on ‘Beergate’ and birthday cake tells us about the state of our politics


When did British politics become so deeply unserious? On a continent at war, with the price of just about everything surging, swathes of our media remain transfixed by the crucial question of ‘who ate and drank what during the pandemic?’.

The circus has now arrived at Labour’s door, and Keir Starmer apparently enjoying a perhaps-somewhat-against-regulations beer with colleagues after a work event in Durham.

It’s hard to imagine Woodward and Bernstein writing this paragraph from a recent Mail on Sunday write-up.

‘In a further twist, a delivery driver for an Indian restaurant yesterday claimed that he had dropped off ‘quite a big order’ at the hall of ‘about four bags’ of curry, rice and naan bread.’

Of course, Labour can hardly complain about their political opponents making hay out of this kind of thing when they have spent so much of the last few months demanding to know the finer points about who had some birthday cake in 10 Downing St. Likewise, repeatedly claiming Angela Rayner wasn’t there when it transpired she was just makes the party look evasive – the very thing Labour so often accuses the Prime Minister of.

Labour supporters might conclude that ‘Beergate’ (no, seriously) is little but a right-wing smear, but there are few things voters dislike more than hypocrisy in political leaders, and this will look like double standards to a fair few people.

That said, attempting to compare one event in Durham to the seemingly never-ending list of lockdown breaches in Downing Street stretches credulity. The ‘BYOB’ suitcase party during the first lockdown particularly grates, as it came at a time when life was utterly miserable for the vast majority of people.

Those who lost loved ones, myself included, will understandably feel a deep resentment for some time to come. It’s also only fair if those at the top receive fines when so many of the public did so for similar infractions.

Still, I can’t help feel that what this whole tedious saga highlights more than anything is how preposterous the rules were in the first place: changes in the law that made criminals out of all of us for daring to desire human interaction. I suspect that for a lot of the public it’s not so much that they want retribution for them having parties (though the bar for a ‘party’ now seems dispiritingly low), but an apology for not letting the rest of us lead some semblance of a normal life for so long.

As we wait for Sue Gray to drop her next hotly anticipated report, which will likely tell us little we didn’t already know, far more severe problems rumble on: a savage cost-of-living crisis, chronic housing shortages and spiralling childcare costs spring to mind. Perhaps we should admit that we’re focusing on historical Covid breaches because the country is so collectively dumbfounded about how to deal with the big issues. There’s also the fact, of course, that a bit of good, old-fashioned finger-wagging is simply more sellable than a deep-dive on the cause and effect of inflation.

Beyond the froth and nonsense of beers, curries, cakes and laptop DJs there is a more concerning point about the police’s involvement in these investigations. The Metropolitan Police came under incredible pressure from Labour to backtrack on their earlier decision and now Conservatives are attempting to push Durham Police to do the same.

I can’t be alone in feeling uneasy at politicians, whatever their stripe, loudly demanding the police investigate their opponents. The police should surely investigate as they see fit and we should trust their judgement. They might even conclude that probing whether someone had a meal with colleagues is not the best use of scarce and valuable resources.

Of course, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: many will feel Keir Starmer has brought this all on himself by acting like a modern day Oliver Cromwell, only to find that kind of hyper-vigilance can be a double-edged source.

Nonetheless, months after we came out of lockdown, surely it’s time to draw a line under this whole genre of stories. Starmer should have his moment of embarrassment and if Durham Police choose in light of new evidence to issue a fine, so be it. Likewise, should the latest Sue Gray report be a truly damning affair, the Government should face the music.

But please, once that’s all concluded, can we get back to serious issues – for the sake of British democracy, if not for my own sanity.

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Jordan Tyldesley is a freelance writer and online editor of Jewish News.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.