LONDON — The scandal engulfing Prime Minister Boris Johnson over lockdown-breaking parties took a twist on Friday when the British police decided to reopen an investigation into whether his political rival, Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, had also broken coronavirus rules.
Mr. Johnson and the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, have already been fined for breaching Covid laws, prompting critics — Mr. Starmer included — to call on them to resign.
So a statement from the police in Durham, in the northeast of England, that they intended to look again at allegations against Mr. Starmer will be welcome news for Mr. Johnson.
A finding that Mr. Starmer broke the law would raise questions about the credibility of the Labour leader, given that he has called for Mr. Sunak to quit for briefly attending an illicit gathering in Downing Street to celebrate Mr. Johnson’s birthday. He has been even more scathing about Mr. Johnson’s leadership after news of the Downing Street parties broke.
But Mr. Starmer, a former chief prosecutor, says that he did not break the law, and Labour has said that the party will cooperate with the investigation.
While the scandal surrounding Mr. Johnson has become widely known as “partygate,” tabloid newspapers have inevitably called Mr. Starmer’s case “beergate.”
The allegations center on a gathering in April last year at which Mr. Starmer was pictured drinking a beer with other party members during a campaigning visit to Durham. The police had already looked into the case and decided to take no action but, on Friday, they issued a statement saying that in light of “significant new evidence” they were conducting an inquiry into possible breaches of coronavirus rules.
Mr. Starmer has said that he had a beer while eating an Indian takeout meal before returning to work. With restaurants closed, this was the only option for food, Labour argues.
One expert on coronavirus rules, Adam Wagner, wrote on Twitter that this would thus be viewed as “reasonably necessary for work” and therefore permitted, unlike prearranged social events in Downing Street.
But in recent days, Labour has come under pressure after it admitted that, despite earlier denials, the party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, was also at the gathering in Durham. Tabloid newspapers have reported that Mr. Starmer shared curries and other food worth 200 pounds, about $250, with as many as 30 aides.
The investigation into Mr. Johnson’s lockdown breaches is not complete and some experts expect him to receive at least one more fine for the gatherings in Downing Street.