The Real #Beergate Scandal: Durham Police

Keir Starmer, and I share something in common: we had a beer on the 30th of April 2021. Sir Keir enjoyed his with a curry at Durham Miners Hall while I celebrated the reversal of convictions for former Post-Office employees wrongly prosecuted in the Horizon scandal.

Our case revealed how Post Office investigators had relentlessly pursued the victims of the scandal, discarding evidence of the real culprit (widespread failures in the Post Office’s “Horizon” computer system) to protect the Post Office brand. The Court of Appeal found that investigators had failed to uphold their basic duties of objectivity and independence, and instead pursued prosecutions for its own ends. It returned the largest “abuse of process” verdict in British legal history. Sitting outside a pub in Lincoln’s Inn, I didn’t realise I’d be witnessing another abuse of powerjust a year later.

This is not to say that the suffering of Horizon scandal victims can be compared to the political struggles of the Leader of Opposition. Sir Keir is likely to survive. Several Post-Office victims did not. But the legal (and democratical!) harm is similar: the misuse of the power of criminal investigations.

A functioning democracy is dependent on the police’s operational independence. As citizens, we need the police to protect our rights, prevent crime, and keep us safe. They can’t do that if they take their orders about who to investigate from the government or its allies. In introducing the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, a previous administration stated:


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The long-held principle of operational independence, where those operating in the office of the constable are able to make independent decisions on how to use their legitimate coercive powers on behalf of the state will continue to remain the cornerstone of the British policing model.”

Durham police have already considered “Keir’s beer” several times. In May 2021, the Sun first brought up the allegation. It was again brought up (this time by Daily Mail) in January 20,22. Durham Police investigated and concluded it did “not believe an offence has been established in relation to the legislation and guidance in place at that time”. Contrast with “Partygate”: the Met refused to investigate at all until forced to do so by the threat of legal action and the findings of the putative Gray report.

Durham police’s original conclusion seems correct. Indoor gatherings were allowed at the time if they were “reasonably necessary” for “work purposes”. The Mail leaked the Labour Party schedule. It seems that dinner was ordered to host a political meeting between Sir Kier (the Labour Party) and a local politician. Expert in Covid law Adam Wagner says it would be difficult to prove that such an event was not necessary to work purposes. The Met cleared No. 10 staff of a photograph showing them drinking wine in Downing Street’s garden. There is a marked contrast between these events and the birthday, “secret santa”, and karaoke parties which took place in Downing Street.

Durham police’s original assessment was unacceptable to government supporters and the press. The story was repeatedly covered by government-supporting newspapers, including the Mail, Sun, and Telegraph, even though there was nothing new. The government gave its MPs and activists “lines to take”. One MP, Richard Holden, wrote to Durham’s Chief Constable, Jo Farrell (on House of Commons notepaper), to demand she re-open the investigation.

On 6 May Durham police announced they were doing just that, after receiving “significant new information”. If this is true, new inquiries are absolutely warranted. Given the context, however, it’s difficult to take the statement at face value. Those pushing the “Beergate” story have been quick to go public with any new evidence uncovered (that’s rather the point). It is strange that they would give the most damning piece to the police and not publish it on the front pages. The “new information” may have come from an entirely different source. But it would be a strange co-incidence, given the resources expended by the government’s supporters, if the key evidence was found by someone else.

Holden claimed, himself, to have discovered a “concerning new piece of evidence”. It turned out to be a Facebook invitation for a Zoom quiz, which took place several hours after Sir Keir was photographed enjoying his beer. There is nothing on the invitation that suggests an in-person component. This seems like a spurious basis to a new investigation.

The Durham police have a history that defers to power. They refused to fine Dominic Cummings (then a senior government advisor) for his (now infamously infected) trips to Durham Castle and Barnard Castle, despite admitting that he had likely committed an offense. Two people were fined for the same thing a week later. The government claimed that the decision was based upon a policy of not taking retroactive action on lockdown breaches. Farrell did not make an exception to a senior government official but she did so for the leader.

This shouldn’t be about politics. I don’t have any party affiliation, so I am not a dog in this fight. But one’s support for the Labour or Conservative parties should be irrelevant to one’s commitment to democratic norms. The police must protect the public, not wield the law as a weapon against the government’s political enemies. Anything else is an abuse or control of power. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Durham constabulary still has serious questions.