A shadow minister has said he has "no idea" why Sir Keir Starmer pulled out of a keynote speech he was due to give on Monday, amid the ongoing fallout over allegations he broke Covid lockdown laws when having a beer at a campaign event.
The Labour leader is no longer attending an event at the Institute for Government, which was scheduled to include a major speech discussing the "challenges the country faces", to be delivered before media questions.
However, the event, which was timed to precede Tuesday's Queen's Speech, was cancelled on Sunday without explanation, prompting fevered speculation as to the reasons why.
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Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said he has “no idea” why the party leader pulled out, when asked by ITV News, and did not give a direct answer when asked whether Sir Keir would resign if fined by police.
"We're not entertaining the prospect of what does Keir do if he receives a fine, there's no reason to believe he will," Mr Streeting said in response to suggestions of a potential forthcoming resignation.
He said it's a "trivial issue" that Sir Keir had cancelled a speech, suggesting there was no inference to be drawn from the last-minute withdrawal.
"Keir's diary changes all the time," he said, as he insisted the Labour leader had obeyed coronavirus rules "all the way through" the pandemic.
Labour massively out-performed the Tories at the local elections, winning hundreds of seats while Boris Johnson's party lost hundreds - but Durham Police dampened celebrations when it announced on Friday it had launched a criminal investigation into Sir Keir's conduct.
He was previously cleared of wrongdoing after being photographed drinking a beer with staff in April 2021, when most indoor socialising was banned, but the force said it had since received “significant new information” about the gathering and would investigate.
Sir Keir avoided questions from reporters on Monday morning as he was asked whether he'd resign if fined by police for Covid breaches.
Mr Streeting said he thinks there has been “an attempted character assassination” on the Labour leader by the Conservative Party and the Daily Mail, which published a leaked memo which suggested the takeaway eaten at a campaign event in Durham had been pre-planned.
Senior Tories have accused him of hypocrisy over the row after the Labour leader demanded Boris Johnson’s resignation over alleged lockdown breaches in No 10.
Mr Johnson, along with Chancellor Rishi Sunak, has been fined for attending a birthday gathering for the PM in Downing Street when indoor mixing was banned, after police determined they had broken Covid lockdown rules. Neither has said they will stand down.
When asked about allegations that Sir Keir broke coronavirus lockdown rules, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said “it does smack of sheer hypocrisy”.
Asked whether the Labour leader should step down if he was given a fine, she told Sky News: “That’s a decision for Keir, not for me. My constituents are saying that this whole thing smacks of sheer hypocrisy given the relentless focus he has placed on partygate. “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 rising cost of living, etc, but look this is a decision for him."
Footage of the incident shows the Labour leader holding a beer
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.
But reports suggest there may have been 30 takeaway meals along with bottles of beer at the gathering in April, where Sir Keir was pictured holding a beer in a Durham Labour constituency office.
The Labour leader has insisted that he is confident no Covid rules were broken, saying he was with colleagues "working in the office".