Sir Keir Starmer has accused Conservative MPs of “mudslinging” over footage of him drinking a beer with colleagues at a time when COVID restrictions were in place.
The Labour leader told broadcasters those pictured were working and paused for some food and that “no rules were broken”.
At the time, people in England were banned from mixing indoors apart from for work.
He added that there is a stark contrast between the incident and the behaviour in Downing Street which is “the most fined workplace in the whole of the UK”.
In recent days, Sir Keir has come under increased pressure over the event – at which he was caught on camera drinking beer with activists in the Durham constituency office of the local MP Mary Foy in the run-up to the Hartlepool by-election
Last week, the Labour Party confirmed its deputy leader Angela Rayner was also in attendance, having previously told journalists she was not present at the gathering last April when coronavirus restrictions were in force.
But a party source said it was a “mistake made in good faith” and Sir Keir has insisted it “makes absolutely no difference” as no rules had been broken.
Starmer under pressure over Durham beer
Probed on the matter on Monday, he told reporters: “We were working. It was days before the election. We paused for something to eat.
“There was no party, no rules were broken. There is nothing I can add to that.”
Asked if he would like to issue any further clarification on what to place, the Labour leader continued: “There was no party, no breach of the rules.
“This is a few days from the election, I know what’s going on here – Tories are desperately trying to talk about anything other than the cost of living, chucking as much mud as possible.
“If they spent as much energy and as much focus on people’s bills and the tax that they are whacking people for then millions of people would be grateful for that.
“So I think this is classic two or three days before an election mudslinging from the Tories.
“But I have got nothing to add.”
‘There was no party, no rules were broken’
Speaking on Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday programme, the Labour leader said his party made a “genuine mistake” when it said Ms Rayner was not at a campaigning event in Durham that he was photographed at drinking a beer.
Asked if the deputy leader was at the office, Sir Keir said: “Yes. We were in the office, we were working, we paused for something to eat, there was no party, no rules were broken and that is the long and short of it.
“I know what is going on here, we have got an election on Thursday and there are just Tory MPs trying to throw mud around because they have got nothing to say on the central issue of the cost of living.”
He later said Labour did not realise it had made a mistake when it said Ms Rayner was not at the Durham event last year.
Sir Keir said: “We were asked twice and I didn’t even realise we had made a mistake until it came out this week. We are a busy office, we made a mistake, it is a genuine mistake and I take responsibility for it.”
Tory MP calls for police to probe event
Richard Holden, the Conservative MP for North West Durham, has been pressing police to reconsider their decision not investigate the event following the fine issued to Boris Johnson for attending a birthday gathering in No 10.
But Labour has rejected that there is any equivalence with the Downing Street partygate scandal, which has rocked the government.
Durham Police confirmed it had received “a number of further communications” that it will be responding to, but said it is not currently investigating the matter.
Meanwhile, Mr Holden has said he has accepted an apology from Ms Foy after she had “drunkenly” abused him on the Commons terrace on Tuesday night for asking police to review claims Sir Keir broke lockdown rules.
The incident, reportedly witnessed by several people, happened as MPs waited for late-night votes.
In a statement posted on Twitter, Mr Holden said: “Mary Kelly Foy has given me a wholehearted apology after, unprovoked, she drunkenly approached, berated and grabbed me on the terrace of parliament on Tuesday evening in front of other MPs and members of staff.
“I have accepted her apology and consider the matter closed.”
A party source confirmed Ms Foy had issued a personal apology.
Met Police partygate investigation continues
The Metropolitan Police’s investigation into lockdown-breaching parties held across Downing Street and Whitehall is still ongoing.
Last month, the prime minister, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Mr Johnson’s wife Carrie Johnson were all issued fixed-penalty notices for attending an event to mark the prime minister’s 56th birthday.
The prime minister, who has faced persistent calls to resign over partygate and apologised to MPs in a performance high on contrition, is thought to have been at more of the 12 events under investigation by Scotland Yard.
The Met Police has said it will not issue any further partygate updates before the May local elections.