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A Media Note on Politics and Police in Durham

From the website of Durham Constabulary:

Earlier this year, Durham Constabulary carried out an assessment as to whether Covid-19 regulations had been breached at a gathering in Durham City on April 30 2021. At that time, it was concluded that no offence had been established and therefore no further action would be taken.

Following the receipt of significant new information over recent days, Durham Constabulary has reviewed that position and now, following the conclusion of the pre-election period, we can confirm that an investigation into potential breaches of Covid-19 regulations relating to this gathering is now being conducted.

As has been widely reported, this refers to the night when Labour leader Keir Starmer visited Durham Miners Hall while campaigning for the Hartlepool byelection. A short video showing Starmer holding a bottle of beer was reviewed by police, whose view in February 2022 was that “we do not believe an offence has been established in relation to the legislation and guidance in place at that time”.

This was reiterated late last month, as reported in The Times:

Police will not fine Sir Keir Starmer for breaking Covid rules despite renewed pressure from Conservative MPs.

The Labour leader was photographed with a bottle of beer in the office of a Labour MP in April last year in Durham. Tories have argued that the occasion was a breach of lockdown rules similar to that committed by the prime minister.

However, Durham police did not suspect Starmer of breaking rules and did not take retrospective action on lockdown breaches, sources said.

Durham police famously said in May 2020 that it would not take retrospective action against Dominic Cummings, as this would not have been in “in line with Durham Constabulary’s general approach throughout the pandemic” and would amount to “treating Mr Cummings differently from other members of the public”. That policy now appears to have been overturned as a result of political pressure, including letters from cabinet ministers.

So what changed? The same report added:

Officers are likely to review material provided by Richard Holden, the Tory MP for North West Durham, which was not available when they came to their decision in February.

Holden highlighted an invitation for a “quiz and social in-person event” on Facebook from the City of Durham Labour Party on the same evening that Starmer was drinking beer. [Mary] Foy encouraged attendees to have a “greasy night”, which is slang for drinking.

Labour has said that Starmer did not participate in the quiz and that it was hosted in a different building. It said that the quiz was online rather than in person.

The plain meaning here is that Holden is quoting the words of the invitation, but it’s actually The Times quoting Holden, and getting into a muddle about where the quote marks should go. Here’s Holden’s letter to Deputy Chief Constable Ciaron Irvine:

An invitation posted online at the time by City of Durham Labour Party shows that a “Quiz and Social” in person event was hosted on the evening of 30 April 2021.

“In person” is purely Holden’s interpretation. However, he was mistaken (or rather, “he lied”, if we prefer the heightened accusatory rhetoric that that is characteristic of the controversy). The invitation is still online, but as noted by Dan Barker, to see it in full the viewer has to click a “See more” button. Thus

Pre – election
CLP
QUIZ and Social
Friday 30th April
7.00pm… See more

becomes

Pre – election
CLP
QUIZ and Social
Friday 30th April
7.00pm
Friends and family welcome
Members please check your emails for zoom link

This completely explodes Holden’s whole argument. It is difficult to see why the Times journalists did not check this for themselves, rather than leaving it at “Labour has said”.

The claim that “greasy night” is “slang for drinking” is also derived from Holden rather than the independent linguistic researches of Britain’s paper of record. Holden told police that the definition can be found on the Urban Dictionary; Mikey Smith of the Daily Mirror found the relevant entry on the third page of results from that website, where “greasy” is described as referring to

any activity that involves spending too much money, drinking too much, doing too many drugs, hanging out with dregs of society people, and generally any activity that involves lowering one’s standard and hindering one’s progress.

The submission dates from 2006. But this usage is obscure and bears no relation to an online Zoom quiz. It appears that Foy actually meant to write “great” but was the victim of a predictive text correction for a typo. (1)

However, according to today’s Sunday Times, the police investigation is actually based on other grounds:

It was the discovery that [Angela] Rayner had been at the event, despite Labour’s original claims, that prompted Durham police to open their investigation. A source close to the force said: “It raises the question about what else we might not have been told the entire truth about.”

Officers have set up a major incident room, and up to six detectives will spend the next four to six weeks looking at the potential lockdown breach. They are expected to use questionnaires — similar to the ones used by Scotland Yard to investigate Johnson and the Downing Street scandals — to interrogate those present at the event.

Rayner’s presence in Durham was openly advertised at the time, and a video remains available on the Labour Party website. A Labour Party staffer later told the Daily Mail that she had not been present, but this was obviously negligence rather than an attempt to deceive. Is Durham Police really opening an investigation based on speculative extrapolations regarding the significance of a staffer’s dismissive response to a Mail enquiry? It is also disturbing to see a police force apparently leaking information in addition to its formal statement.

There are also other alleged details in the media. The Sunday Times has produed an unnamed hostile witness, but he or she is described as “willing to help police” rather than as having done so already:

Crucially, the source said Starmer did not go back to work after eating his curry: “It has been claimed that Starmer worked during the curry and then after the curry. None of those two things happened. He did not go back to work to the best of my knowledge.”

They also accused some attendees, including Foy and her staff, of not working at all and only being there to socialise.

“They were just there drinking,” said the source. “This made some people feel uncomfortable because they knew there was a risk we could be accused of breaking the rules.”

“To the best of my knowledge” is a serious qualifier, and if “some people felt uncomfortable” by the presence of alleged slackers it must mean that other people were working.

The main news, however, concerns a leaked memo:

a leaked document appeared to show the gathering had been planned.

Starmer has claimed the takeaway was ordered spontaneously between meetings.

…According to an operational note drawn up for Starmer’s visit to Durham, obtained by The Mail on Sunday, an 80-minute slot was set aside for “dinner in Miners Hall with Mary Foy”. The document also includes a note asking a member of the Labour leader’s staff to “arrange takeaway from Spice Lounge”, a local curry house. The source confirmed that the decision to order a curry had been taken in advance.

The memo calls into question Starmer’s claim that he returned to work after eating dinner at 10pm. After the entry allocating time for dinner, the document says that he walked to a hotel, followed by: “End of visit.”

The memo also refers to “social distancing” and reminds attendees to “wear face coverings whilst indoors at all times” – the latter of course hardly applicable during eating. (2) This details indicates that whoever wrote the note believed in good faith that the scehdule was in compliance with the law; if Durham police now judge otherwise it will suggest that the rules were difficult to interpret. This of course would benefit Boris Johnson, who maintains that his own rule-breaking was unintentional (Jacob Rees-Mogg drew a comparison with sport, in which a player receiving a penalty does not imply having cheated).

UPDATE: Sky News has a clip of Holden with Home Secretary Priti Patel ahead of the Queen’s Speech. Patel touches Holden’s arm to get his attention and says “you are having so much luck”.

UPDATE 2: Special mention to the Conservative MP James Cleverly, who on Twitter claims that this was a “meet Keir” event and that there must have been others like it.

UPDATE 3: As the investigation proceeded, Holden began to provide a running commentary in which he suggested that police actions demonstrated that the matter as being treated as “serious”. The implication seemed to be “no smoke without fire”.

UPDATE 4: In early July, a conspiracy theory started appearing online which claimed that Starmer had been fined, but that he had managed to get an injunction to keep it out of the news. The claim apparently began on the far-left (Skwawkbox ran pieces pointing out that Starmer had failed to “deny reports circulating in party that he has been fined by Durham Constabulary”), but was picked up by conservatives including Susan Hall, who is the chair of the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee, and then by Mark Steyn on GB News (which must have known it was nonsense or else Steyn would have been taken off air).

UPDATE 5: The matter was closed by police on 8 July. No-one was fined.

Notes

1. It is difficult to envisage Holden trawling through Labour Party social media and the Urban Dictionary in search of his “gotcha”. One wonders who did the actual research.

2. A clue to how the memo reached the Mail on Sunday, and about the likely motives of the unnamed witness, is provided in a different recent Times article, which says that

Tory sources also said they had been helped on the ground by hard-left Labour activists who resent Starmer replacing Jeremy Corbyn.

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