Since then Labour has been on the defensive, despite its strong performance in local elections, while trying to dismiss the furore as a smear. But Starmer has called on Johnson to quit over the lockdown-breaking parties at Downing Street.
As well as demanding Johnson’s resignation, Starmer has also said that Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, should resign after he was fined by police for his brief attendance at a celebration for the prime minister’s birthday at Downing Street.
Conservative-supporting newspapers have accused Starmer of hypocrisy, and he appears to have calculated that, if the police fine him, his position would be untenable anyway.
It is still unclear whether Starmer’s actions in Durham broke the law.
Adam Wagner, a lawyer and expert on the coronavirus rules, wrote on Twitter that he thought it was “absurd” that the police could criminally penalise the leader of the opposition for meeting, for an hour, with a local lawmaker “and having dinner late in the evening — days before an election in that area”.
Labour argues that the event took place at a time when many restaurants were closed but work meetings and political campaigning were permitted, and that Starmer and his aides had no alternative but to order a takeout meal. The party’s story changed in one respect, however, when it admitted that its deputy leader, Angela Rayner, was also at the meeting, contradicting earlier denials.
Rayner also said on Monday she would step down if she was fined.
A police investigation into several allegations of lawbreaking at Downing Street is still continuing. And once it is completed, the government is committed to publishing an internal report, a preliminary version of which was critical enough to prompt the police investigation.
There are signs that some of the prime minister’s allies are becoming concerned that the “beergate” saga might have spiralled out of control.
Asked Sunday whether Starmer should quit if he is fined, one senior Cabinet minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said he should not.
“I think he should pay a fine and then talk about the issues of great importance to the nation,” he told Channel 4.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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